As the 2010 RACMSA Rally of Scotland got underway with back-to-back spectator stages around historical Scone Palace on Friday night, Škoda Motorsport’s Juho Hänninen was the first driver to make an error. But as the rally moved to its traditional gravel stages this morning, Hänninen gradually asserted himself as many of his major rivals fell by the wayside.

Overnight leader Guy Wilks in the Škoda UK Fabia S2000 was the first to drop out of contention. After narrowly losing the lead to the charging Peugeot 207 of Kris Meeke in SS3, Wilks hooked a front wheel into a cut marginally too early during SS4 and was directed sharply into a rock face. He spun through 180 degrees but was able to get underway again with only minor damage to the Fabia’s front wing.

Wilks took the lead again when Meeke picked up a puncture during the dramatic SS5, which was broadcast live on Eurosport, but a broken differential on SS6 forced him to withdraw early to the service park. Hänninen, who had set the fastest times on SS4, SS5 and SS6, was now in control.

While Hänninen was clearly driving well within his limits – a strategy that has served him well throughout the year and delivered him the Intercontinental Rally Challenge drivers’ title – Meeke was having to keep his 207 on the ragged edge to stay in touch. Early in SS5 he dropped his right rear wheel over the edge of the track, puncturing the tyre. He carried on fighting but on SS7 a brake union burst, slowing him dramatically. After makeshift repairs by the roadside he completed the last stage of the day just 11.8s slower than Hänninen, but nearly two minutes behind on the road.

Andreas Mikkelsen was the revelation of the day in the Ford Fiesta S2000. After hitting a deer on the morning’s first stage, causing minor damage to one headlight, he avoided trouble for the remainder of the stages and was regularly among the quickest drivers. Attrition may have gifted him second place overall at the end of the day, but he underlined his potential by going fastest of all in the final stage, closing to just 11.1s behind Hänninen.

Rising star Thierry Neuville drove relatively conservatively throughout the day and his consistency was rewarded with third place overall in the Peugeot Belux 207, 1m30.4s behind Hänninen.

Last year Alister McRae finished on the podium for Proton in Rally of Scotland, but soon after starting the day in fifth place overall he halted on SS3. After tracing the fault to a loose connection in the alternator he got started again and set the fifth fastest time in SS5 before the problem struck again and forced him out of the rally. Team-mate Keith Cronin also had a frustrating morning when his intercom malfunctioned and co-driver Barry McNulty had to shout to make himself heard. Later, on SS6, his steering wheel came off in his hands, and after rummaging around in the engine bay to trace the source of the problem he failed to secure the bonnet properly when he got underway. The bonnet flew up at speed, breaking the windscreen and his co-driver’s window. At the end of the stage they also learned that their time card was missing, most likely having blown out of the window.

Like McRae and Wilks, Cronin retired to the service park early and aims to restart the rally tomorrow.

Tom Cave was the only Proton driver running at the end of the day, and he was much happier with his choice of cut tyres for the final stages. He found he could get more heat into them and enjoy far more grip and confidence than he had in the morning.

The battle for Group N honours raged throughout the day between three closely matched entrants In Ralliart Lancer Evo IXs. Scottish Rally Champion David Bogie fended off challenges from Euan Thorburn and Jonathan Greer to be leading as they headed into SS8, the last stage of the day, but then he suffered a puncture and lost five minutes. Greer was hampered by a faulty shock absorber for much of the afternoon and received a 1m40s time penalty after dropping out of the correct running order while effecting repairs by the roadside.

The 2WD Cup lost Colin Smith’s Honda Civic Type R to gearbox failure during the day, which was particularly galling for Smith because he had fitted several new gearbox components specifically for the Rally of Scotland. 18-year-old Estonian Siim Plangi was easily the quickest of the remaining runners in his Civic despite complaining of a general lack of grip and confidence in the early stages. During the service interval he changed to softer tyres and suspension settings, which he felt were a great improvement.

Harry Hunt drove cautiously – occasionally too cautiously, he felt, after working the brakes too hard and overheating them on SS7. He remains determined to drive at his own pace because his Ford Fiesta R2 lacks the sheer grunt to compete with Plangi’s Civic on outright pace.

Sunday’s leg features 89.98 competitive kilometres and gets underway at 06:40hrs local time. The first car is due to reach the finish at Stirling Castle at 15:04hrs.

Juho Hänninen (Italy), Škoda Fabia S2000, first overall: “The car is working perfectly and the last stage was very enjoyable to drive even though the surface was more slippery than it was in the morning. It’s a shame to lose two big rivals to mechanical problems. I can’t relax the pace because [Andreas] Mikkelsen is so close. We’ve just got to keep it going tomorrow.”

Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway), Ford Fiesta S2000, second overall: “It’s been an incredible day. I found a good rhythm on most of the stages and enjoyed myself. I'm really happy with the way the development of the car and tyres has gone. If the team wants me to go for the win then I'll try but otherwise I'll go for the podium. There are still four stages to go and lots can happen.”

Thierry Neuville (Belgium), Peugeot 207 S2000, third overall: “It’s been quite a good day, slippery at the start but conditions improved. Our aim was to have a clear run and avoid trouble.”

1 Juho Hänninen/Mikko Markkula (Škoda Fabia S2000) 1h03m01.2s
2 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (Ford Fiesta S2000) +11.1s
3 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Klinger (Peugeot 207 S2000) +1m30.4s
4 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Peugeot 207 S2000) +1m46.2s
5 Tom Cave/Craig Parry (Proton Satria Neo) +4m20.3s
6 Euan Thorburn/Paul Beaton (Ralliart Lancer Evo IX) +5m08.5s
7 Jonathan Greer/Dai Roberts (Ralliart Lancer Evo IX) +5m51.8s
8 Daniel Oliveira/Carlos Magalhães (Peugeot 207 S2000) +6m59.2s
9 David Bogie/Kevin Rae (Ralliart Lancer Evo IX) +8m00.9s
10 Siim Plangi/Marek Sarapuu (Honda Civic Type R) +8m22.5s 
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