Australia’s Chris Atkinson has come to a grinding halt on the opening stage of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) Rallye Sanremo in Italy.
The factory Proton stopped when his Satria Neo suffered a suspected electrical fault. It put the Queenslander out of the event with team mechanics keen to ready the car for the next IRC round in Scotland before they fly off to Japan for next weekend’s Asia Pacific championship qualifier.
Up front a thrilling battle for victory is in store on the final day with little more than two seconds covering the top two drivers.
Škoda UK Motorsport’s Andreas Mikkelsen was leading up until the 44-kilometre Ronde night stage but couldn’t stave off the flying Freddy Loix, who moved into top spot by going 7.2s faster than Mikkelsen in his BFO-Škoda Rally Team Fabia Super 2000.
The Belgian admitted to making a sluggish start to the rally and was down in seventh after the opening stage. But he quickly picked up his pace and set a brace of fastest stage times before he went quickest again on Friday night’s final test.
Mikkelsen, who was heading for victory on the previous round in Hungary only to crash out on the penultimate stage, was the first driver to tackle the night stage and his added caution ultimately cost him the overnight lead. However, an error-free drive and four fastest stage times marked an impressive opening day for the 22-year-old.
Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg’s Thierry Neuville had been in contention for victory until overheating brakes slowed him down on Ronde. As a result he’s 16.6s off the lead in third position heading into day two.
Peugeot France’s Bryan Bouffier is fourth overnight after a solid day in his Peugeot France 207. Jan Kopecký, who started the event with a 17-point lead in the title standings, said he was at a loss to explain his lack of pace in his factory Škoda after completing day one in fifth overall, 34.2s behind leader and title rival Loix.
Bruno Magalhães is a strong sixth in this Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 with Umberto Scandola the leading Italian in seventh overall in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000. Former Sanremo winner Alessandro Perico (207) is eighth with Pierre Campana ninth following a troubled opening day.
The rising star was firmly in the fight for a top finish only for an engine sensor fault to slow his Munaretto 207 on stage three. Repairs at service resulted in an engine mapping glitch, which meant his car was using 25 per cent too much fuel on the second loop of stages and losing power. To compound the Corsican’s frustrations, his car’s gear lever snapped on stage five. He then reached the end of the Ronde stage with a right rear puncture.
Škoda privateer Toni Gardemeister completes the top 10 with PROTON Motorsports’ Giandomenico Basso slipping to 13th after an intercom failure caused him to briefly go off on Ronde and damage his Satria Neo S2000. Karl Kruuda also hit trouble on the night stage, crashing his Fabia.
There was drama for Guy Wilks who smashed the front-left wheel of his Peugeot UK 207 on a bridge parapet after understeering on a patch of loose gravel and retired on the opening stage.
Leading positions after SS7: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Freddy Loix BFO Skoda 1h17m49.7s 2. Andreas Mikkelsen Skoda UK + 2.7s 3. Thierry Neuville Kronos/Peugeot Belux + 16.6s 4. Bryan Bouffier PH/Peugeot France + 17.8s 5. Jan Kopecky Skoda + 34.2s 6. Bruno Magalhaes Peugeot Portugal + 39.2s 7. Umberto Scandola Car Ford + 47.1s 8. Alessandro Perico PA Peugeot + 2m39.9s 9. Pierre Campana Munaretto Peugeot + 2m40.3s 10. Toni Gardemeister TGS Skoda + 3m35.9s