IRC 40e Rally San Marino, San Marino 06-07 07 2012

Andreas Mikkelsen tops a dramatic fight for glory on Rally San Marino with less than 10 seconds covering the top three drivers after the opening day of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier, the second gravel event of the all-action IRC season.

The defending IRC champion was extra cautious after struggling for confidence on the narrow and slippery gravel stages on Friday morning and reached midday service in San Marino 4.3s behind surprise early leader Sepp Wiegand in third overall. But with the stage surface offering improved grip in the afternoon having been swept clean of the loose coating of gravel, Mikkelsen was able to up his pace, taking the lead on stage three and recording his first fastest stage time on the fourth test before winning the night stage through the streets of San Marino.

“Things are going as we want and we will continue to do the best we can without pushing the limit too far,” said the 23-year-old ŠKODA UK Motorsport driver. “When it’s fast, we are faster than Basso, but where we have uphill hairpins we lose time against his turbocharged car so it’s not easy.”

Giandomenico Basso is second, 4.1s behind Mikkelsen after an impressive showing on his first outing on gravel in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta RRC. The Italian was fastest on stages two and three having dropped time on the opening test when he spun twice.

Umberto Scandola completes the provisional podium in his ŠKODA Italia entry despite being plagued by a power issue throughout the day, which he suggested had been caused by traces of brown liquid in his car’s fuel supply. A spin midway through stage two resulted in further frustration.

Sepp Wiegand impressed by winning the opening stage – his maiden fastest time in the IRC – to hold an early lead for ŠKODA Auto Deutschland. But his decision to continue using a soft compound tyre in the afternoon when his key rivals opted for a harder option slowed his progress, as did a spin on stage four when he had to make three attempts before he could get pointing in the right direction again. In spite of the setbacks it was a promising showing by the inexperienced German on only his third gravel event.

Jarkko Nikara heads the IRC Production Cup contingent in a strong fifth overall after he demoted his fellow Finn Juha Salo with a faster time on the all-asphalt San Marino night stage. Nikara overcame brake and tyre wear issues in his Tommi Mäkinen Racing Subaru Impreza R4 STI.

Fiesta S2000 pilot Salo is an impressive sixth overall in a car he drove for the first time during Thursday’s pre-event shakedown, a rear-left puncture on stage four the multiple Finnish champion’s only major issue. He is one place ahead of the Swiss Laurent Reuche in a Peugeot 207 Super 2000.

Nikara’s Tommi Mäkinen Racing team-mate Toshi Arai, from Japan, was second in the showroom category only for a ball joint to fail on the road section heading to stage four and forcing him out. Marco Tempestini will top the IRC Production Cup points providing he can climb into second place on day two in his Impreza. The Italian-born Romanian reported dropping precious seconds with incorrect tyre pressure and differential settings.

Patrik Flodin had been expected to challenge for a podium in his Petter Solberg Engineering Fiesta only to retire on the road section to stage two with an overheating engine. It had been a tough beginning for the Swede after he incurred a 20-second penalty for arriving late at the start of stage one. He then got caught up in Salo’s dust clouds after the Finn was delayed getting stuck behind Germain Bonnefis, whose Peugeot Sport 207 ground to a halt with fuel pressure problems and blocked the road.

Bonnefis, making his debut in the IRC, was stranded for more than seven minutes and lost more time when his car’s handbrake malfunctioned on stage two. Nevertheless the young French driver has belied his lack of experience to set several strong stage times.

After dropping time with an overshoot on stage one, Hungarian János Puskádi remains in contention for a top 10 finish in his Eurosol Racing Team Fabia, which he is using on gravel for the first time.

Oleksiy Tamrazov retired when he tore the front-left wheel off his Dream Team Ukraine Fiesta striking a concrete block 14 kilometres into the 19.33-kilometre first stage, which was cancelled for the majority of competitors shortly afterwards following delays caused by Bonnefis getting stuck.

In the chase for IRC 2WD Cup honours, Harry Hunt is 1m05.9s clear of Robert Consani after a faultless display by the Briton. Martin Kangur started the event tied on points with Hunt but dropped out on stage two with suspected powersteering failure on his Catwees Racing Honda Civic Type R.

Saturday’s action consists of eight stages and begins with the 6.82-kilometre Monte Benedetto stage at 10:23hrs local time. The finish is scheduled for 20:00hrs in San Marino.

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