Thierry Neuville has maintained his overnight advantage at the head of the Tour de Corse-E.Leclerc leaderboard following the second day of the all-action Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier on the picturesque Mediterranean island.

Neuville, in a Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 Super 2000, left the restart in Calvi this morning with a lead of 8.9s over Skoda Motorsport driver Jan Kopecky, which he’d established by winning Thursday’s opening brace of stages.

The Belgian began day two on the back foot when he suffered a spin early in the first test and dropped 10 seconds. But he remained composed, despite his lead being trimmed to 1.4s over new second-placed driver Bryan Bouffier, who then moved in front by 4.2s with a faster time through stage four.

But after Bouffier, driving a Peugeot France 207, suffered a rear-left puncture four kilometres into stage five, the 22-year-old Neuville was able to retake the lead by setting the fastest time on the test, one of three shown live on Eurosport. He claimed two further stage wins during the afternoon and completed day two 23.4s clear of Kopecky following a hugely impressive showing alongside co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul.

Kopecky, from Czech Republic, never felt entirely confident behind the wheel of his Skoda Fabia S2000 despite attempts to improve the set-up of his car at midday service in Corte. He will begin day three 4.3s ahead of BFO Skoda driver Freddy Loix who moved into the final podium spot on the last stage of the day at the expense of Andreas Mikkelsen.

Like Kopecky, Loix admitted the handling of his car could be improved in his efforts to secure his second podium finish of 2011. However, with Mikkelsen a mere 1.3s adrift starting day three, the Belgian will have to use all of his pace and extensive experience to remain in front.

Mikkelsen moved into third place on stage five and drove without error in his Skoda UK-backed Fabia as he continues to follow his team’s instructions to secure a strong finish by keeping his obvious speed in check.

Pierre Campana’s day got off to a troubled start when he found his brakes fading over the first two stages. The Corsican changed the set-up of his Munaretto-run 207 at midday service and was much happier in the afternoon, having eliminated most of the understeer that held him back earlier. He holds fifth overnight, 17s up on the recovering Bouffier.

Julien Maurin will start day three from Ajaccio in seventh position with his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 after a final stage charge enabled him to climb up from ninth spot. Bruno Magalhaes is eighth after brake problems hampered his progress in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207. Toni Gardemeister is ninth in his TGS Worldwide Skoda after experiencing several set-up problems. Local driver Jean-Mathieu Leandri is 10th in a 207.

Patrik Sandell, making his IRC debut in a Skoda Sweden Fabia, is 31.0s behind Leandri as he continues to adapt himself to Corsica’s narrow and twisty mountain roads.

Corsican Jean-Francois Succi is 12th in his Skoda with dominant IRC 2WD Cup leader and fellow islander Pierre-Antoine Guglielmi making the most of his local knowledge to hold 13th spot.

IRC Production Cup pacesetter, the Swiss Subaru Impreza pilot Florian Gonon is next up on his Tour de Corse debut. Toshi Arai completes the top 15 in his R4-specification Impreza, which the Japanese said had been “sliding” too much throughout day two.

Guy Wilks began Friday’s six stages in style by winning the first test in his Peugeot UK 207. But his challenge was over six kilometres from the end of the next run when he slid off the road on a downhill right-hand bend. His car was undamaged but was stuck in a ditch and he was forced to retire. “I was trying to make up some lost time and just braked too late,” said the Briton. “The back of the car touched the grass, swapped ends and ended up five metres off the road.”

Friday’s sixth stage ran as a liaison section following a crash involving the route opening zero car driven by Ari and Max Vatanen. Max Vatanen was uninjured but this father Ari, the rallying legend, was flown to hospital in Bastia for checks on a neck injury. However, the Finn is expected to make a full recovery following the heavy frontal impact.

Thierry Neuville (Belgium), Peugeot 207 S2000, first overall: “It’s been really an incredible day and I’m so happy. The car was working very good, me and Nicolas did a good job and we only made one mistake. I now need to keep the right rhythm and stay concentrated. I really want to win this rally.”

Jan Kopecky (Czech Republic), Skoda Fabia S2000, second overall: “It has been quite a difficult day. The stages are tricky and I have not always had the right amount of confidence to push. I’ve been losing time on the stages. Tomorrow will be interesting because there is a big fight for the podium.”

Freddy Loix (Belgium), Skoda Fabia S2000, third overall: “There are still six long stages to go tomorrow so anything can happen. There is no need to panic but it will be difficult and we will have to watch out. It is very tight in third position.”

1 Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) Peugeot 207 S2000 1h52m23.0s
2 Jan Kopecky (CZE)/Petr Stary (CZE) Skoda Fabia S2000 +23.4s
3 Freddy Loix (BEL)/Frederic Miclotte (BEL) Skoda Fabia S2000 +27.7s
4 Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Ola Floene (NOR) Skoda Fabia S2000 +29.0s
5 Pierre Campana (FRA)/Sabrina de Castelli (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 +52.8s
6 Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m09.8s
7 Julien Maurin (FRA)/Olivier Ural (FRA) M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 +2m53.5s
8 Bruno Magalhaes (POR)/Paulo Grave (POR) Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m01.9s
9 Toni Gardemeister (FIN)/Tapio Suominen (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000 +3m03.2s
10 Jean-Mathieu Leandri (FRA)/Pierre-Marien Leonardi (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 +4m08.2s

IRC Production Cup: Florian Gonon (SUI)/Sandra Arlettaz (SUI) Subaru Impreza WRX
IRC 2WD Cup: Pierre-Antoine Guglielmi (FRA)/Jean-Francois Porcu (FRA) Renault Clio R3

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