Defending IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen held a 1.4s lead over Finland’s Juho Hänninen in the 47th SATA Azores Rally after the opening three timed special stages on the island of São Miguel on Thursday.
Arch rivals last summer in the Azores and throughout last season, the Skoda duo were in a class of their own over the first three of 14 special stages of the first round of the 2012 Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) to set up a fascinating battle over the next two days.
“It was okay, a little slippery in some places today and some fog, but I am happy,” said Hänninen. “For sure, it is going to be a big fight between me and Andreas. He was really speeding today!”
Third-placed Frenchman Bryan Bouffier was their closest rival in his Peugeot France-backed 207 S2000. “I enjoyed the stages, but I am not enjoying my times. I need to push harder. I need to be quicker.”
Twice former winner Bruno Magalhäes held fourth position in his Peugeot 207 S2000, despite losing time after having to reverse on the second stage following the use of the handbrake. Germany’s young German talent Sepp Wiegand rounded off the top five.
The UAE’s Rashid Al-Ketbi settled into the IRC well in the Skydive Dubai Rally Team Skoda and finished the first day in ninth position, behind Azorean Group N leader Ricardo Moura, Hermann Gassner Junior in his Red Bull Skoda Fabia and the Ukraine driver Oleksandr Salyuk. Ukraine’s Oleksii Tamrazov. rounded off the top 10 in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000.
“This was the first time in my life that I drive head-to-head with another driver on a special stage,” enthused Al-Ketbi after the super special stage.
Britain’s Harry Hunt slotted into 12th overall and led the IRC 2WD category in his Citroën DS3 R3T from Portugal’s 13th-placed Paulo Maciel (Citroën Saxo VTS). “I am enjoying it and have a good set-up – so far, so good,” said Hunt.
Day One – as it happened:
Rally organisers announced that they had shortened the second stage between São Bras and Vila Franca from 16.18km to 6.48km to avoid an area with poor road conditions, as attention switched to the opening 8.25km of the Coroa Da Mata special in the north of the island and the beginning of a new IRC season.
All 39 entrants made it to the start and last year’s winner Hänninen laid down the gauntlet with a time of 6m 46.7s. Drivers were wary of changeable weather conditions and road surfaces, with the presence of fog a risk at any time because of the diverse North Atlantic weather systems that cross the Azores.
Mikkelsen set the fastest time and edged into a slender 3.2s lead, despite picking up a slow front-left puncture, while Bouffier complained of a lack of grip. Magalhães was astonished to see the times set by the leading Skodas and settled into fourth and Wiegand sneaked in front of Moura to take fifth. Al-Ketbi slotted into ninth place on his Azorean debut.
Hänninen redressed the balance in the second stage and reduced Mikkelsen’s lead to just 1.2s. Bouffier consolidated third overall and Magalhães remained in fourth, but fog had been prevalent on a stage where the temperature also plummeted.
The final stage of the day was the run through the 2.2km super special stage, near Ponta Delgada. The two front-runners ran side-by-side through the natural amphitheatre in a quarry in front of hundreds of spectators and Mikkelsen managed to extend his lead by a mere 0.2s to set up the prospect of a thrilling contest on Friday.
“It is important that we, as a club, continue to meet the high standards of the IRC and, at the same time, show the Azores in a positive light to the rest of the world,” said Francisco Coelho, chairman of the organising committee of the SATA Azores Rally, at the official start in Ponta Delgada.
“Raising the profile of the Azores to an external audience is what justifies the massive support that the Government has committed to this sporting event. We may strive even higher in the future. Opportunities, such as these, should be grabbed whenever possible.”
Friday is the longest day of the rally in terms of competitive kilometres, with crews set to tackle six stages, totalling 86.37km, in a total route of 251.36km.
Drivers will tackle both the Fetieras and scenic Sete Citades specials on the far west of the island on two occasions and Thursday’s opening Corda Da Mata stage for the second time. The day’s action draws to a close with a repeat run through the 16.18km special between São Bras and Vila Franca that acted as the shortened stage two on Thursday.
The event is being filmed and broadcast by official rights holder Eurosport and live updates are being aired on World Rally Radio.
47th SATA Azores Rally – positions after SS3 (unofficial)
1. Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Ola Fløene (NOR) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 13m 53.7s
2. Juho Hänninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 13m 55.1s
3. Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 – 14m 16.7s
4. Bruno Magalhães (PRT)/Carlos Magalhães (PRT) Peugeot 207 S2000 – 14m 23.6s
5. Sepp Wiegand (DEU)/Timo Gottschalk (DEU) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 14m 45.7s
6. Ricardo Moura (PRT)/Sancho Eiró (PRT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX – 14m 47.4s
7. Hermann Gassner Jnr. (DEU)/Klaus Wicha (DEU) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 14m 49.8s
8. Oleksandr Salyuk (UKR)/Pavlo Cherepin (UKR) Ford Fiesta S2000 – 15m 11.2s
9. Rashid Al-Ketbi (UAE)/Khaled Al-Kendi (UAE) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 15m 30.9s
10. Oleksii Tamrazov (UKR)/Nicola Arena (ITA) Ford Fiesta S2000 – 15m 36.6s
11. Marco Tempestini (ITA)/Aorin Pulpea (ITA) Subaru Impreza STi R4 – 15m 40.2s
– Credit: SATA Rallye Azores