Juho Hanninen has completed the opening day of Sata Rallye Acores with a lead of 4.3s over last year’s winner Bruno Magalhaes. Hanninen, the defending Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion, snatched first place from Andreas Mikkelsen when the Norwegian was slowed on stage two with powersteering failure, and extended his advantage at the wheel of his SKODA Motorsport Fabia Super 2000 with the fastest time on the day-closing superspecial stage in front of several thousand fans.

Despite his setback, Mikkelsen remains firmly in contention in his SKODA UK Motorsport Fabia, 1.4s down on Magalhaes and a mere 5.7s behind Hanninen heading into Friday’s nine all-gravel stages on the mid-Atlantic island of Sao Miguel.

Magalhaes underlined his threat with the fastest time on stage two in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207. The Lisbon driver suggested he could have been closer to Hanninen in the overall classification had it not been for a bout of understeer on stage one, which caused his front tyres to experience significant wear.

Hanninen’s SKODA team-mate Jan Kopecky is fourth overnight. The Czech driver said he was still trying to restore his confidence on gravel having not driven on a loose-surface rally for 12 months. He reported finding optimum braking points being particularly troublesome.

Patrik Sandell is fifth overnight on his return to IRC action in his SKODA Sweden Fabia but far from happy. With the top five positions after stage two being reversed to determine the road order on Friday, Sandell will be forced to run at the head of the pack and forge a clean path through the surface gravel for the drivers behind. “It was not really the plan because I know it won’t be easy but Hanninen was blindingly fast today from second on the road so it’s not completely a problem,” said the 29-year-old.

Ricardo Moura heads the IRC Production Cup standings in a fine sixth overall at the wheel of his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer. The local hero reported a trouble-free start to the event but insisted that his priority was to secure maximum points in the Portuguese and Azorean championships, which he currently leads.

Guy Wilks is seventh at the end of day one and is well placed to cancel out the 29.3s deficit to Hanninen based on his more advantageous road position on Friday’s stages. The Peugeot UK driver dropped time on stage two to avoid being in fifth place at the end of the run. “Maybe I’ve lost a little bit too much but I’ve got a decent road position so I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

Bryan Bouffier was hamstrung running first on the road in his Peugeot France 207 and is eighth overnight, 36.3s behind Hanninen. The Rallye Monte-Carlo winner said it had been a struggle to avoid losing too much ground and admitted his lack of knowledge of the Azorean roads and driving on gravel hadn’t helped his efforts to stay in the fight for victory.

Subaru Impreza R4 driver Toshi Arai was ninth following stage two but a spin and stall on the superspecial enabled Vitor Lopes to move ahead in his standard-specification Impreza. Arai’s team-mate, Fumio Nutahara, is 14th overnight.

Julien Maurin was eighth after stage one but a water pump failure sidelined his M-Sport Ford Fiesta on the road section heading to the next run. The Frenchman plans to restart on Friday under SupeRally regulations.

Paulo Maciel heads defending champion Harry Hunt in the IRC 2WD Cup. Series’ leader Jean-Michel Raoux is a distant sixth.

Juho Hanninen (Finland), SKODA Fabia S2000, first overall: “So far it has been quite okay but there’s a long way to go and I am expecting a big fight. I have a good feeling with the car and I am happy to be starting fifth on the road tomorrow.”

Bruno Magalhaes (Portugal), Peugeot 207 S2000, second overall: “It’s fantastic to be in this position after some difficult rallies recently. We made a few changes to the suspension and the car is good. I am confident for a good second day.”

Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway), SKODA Fabia S2000, third overall: “We saw some smoke in the middle of stage two and then I started to lose the powersteering. It was really scary after that because there were some big crests to control the car on but I still have a chance.”

1 Juho Hanninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) SKODA Fabia S2000 17m07.4s
2 Bruno Magalhaes (POR)/Paulo Grave (POR) Peugeot 207 S2000 +4.3s
3 Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Ola Fløene (NOR) SKODA Fabia S2000 +5.7s
4 Jan Kopecky (CZE)/Petr Stary (CZE) SKODA Fabia S2000 +10.6s
5 Patrik Sandell (SWE)/Staffan Parmander (SWE) SKODA Fabia S2000 +20.5s
6 Ricardo Moura (POR)/Sandro Eiro (POR) Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX +28.1s
7 Guy Wilks (GBR)/Phil Pugh (GBR) Peugeot 207 S2000 +29.3s
8 Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 +36.3s
9 Vitor Lopes (POR)/Hugo Magalhaes (POR) Subaru Impreza STI WRX +47.0s
10 Toshi Arai (JPN)/Dale Moscatt (AUS) Subaru Impreza STI R4 +56.2s

IRC Production Cup: Ricardo Moura (POR)/Sandro Eiro (POR) Ralliart Lancer Evolution IX
IRC 2WD Cup: Paulo Maciel (POR)/Filipe Gouveira (POR) Citroen Saxo VTS

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