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ANREAS Mikkelsen made a fairytale start to his Hyundai career by leading RallyRACC Catalunya – Rally de España after Friday’s opening leg.

PHOTO: Mikkelsen gets in the action in Spain on Friday (pic Jaanus Ree, WRC Media/Red Bull)

Making his debut for the Korean team after joining the team last month, Mikkelsen ended a captivating day with a 1.4sec advantage in his i20 World Rally Car over WRC leader Sébastien Ogier.

The lead battle was incredibly tight and three drivers topped the leaderboard over the six mixed-surface stages covering 115.90km.

Sunshine and high temperatures ensured the dry gravel tracks west of Salou favoured the late starters. Those early in the order swept loose gravel aside to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind.

The cleaning was not as pronounced as expected in the morning and Ott Tänak led initially. Mikkelsen’s choice of hard compound tyres helped him move into a slender 0.6sec advantage over fellow Norwegian Mads Østberg at the midpoint.

Østberg edged ahead before Mikkelsen regained the initiative and held off a charging Ogier, despite a final stage glitch.

“I’m very happy with how it’s going. It’s a new car for me and I need to get used to it,” Mikkelsen said.

“I was too careful in the first two stages, but I changed the differential settings and it gave me a better feeling. Something happened with the suspension in the last stage but we managed.”

Road-opener Ogier, battling with Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville for the drivers’ championship, endured the worst of the loose gravel but was sublime on the technical asphalt midway through the long Terra Alta test which closed each loop. He masterfully managed his M-Sport Ford Fiesta’s tired tyres to climb to second.

Kris Meeke won two stages in his Citroën C3 en route to third, 3.0sec off the lead. It could have been even better had the Briton not dropped vital seconds when he spun.

Tänak’s tenure at the front ended with a slow puncture and the Estonian was uncomfortable with his Fiesta’s handling in the afternoon. He ended 3.3sec behind Meeke and 0.8sec ahead of a frustrated Østberg.

A hole allowed the cockpit in Østberg’s Fiesta to fill with dust and his temper reached boiling point when the heater jammed on in the final stage. Having never been outside the top two, he slipped to fifth.

Dani Sordo struggled for grip initially but the Spanish hero’s mood improved alongside the traction and he was 10.8sec off the lead in sixth, a place ahead of dispirited teammate Neuville.

The Belgian’s title hopes were jolted when his choice of soft tyres was unsuited to the morning conditions and he grappled to find the ideal set-up when the stages were repeated.

Jari-Matti Latvala won stage four but stopped on stage six with engine failure. He said he did not expect to re-start on Saturday.

Saturday features two identical loops of three tests, split by service, before ending with a crowd-pleasing stage along Salou seafront. It adds up to 121.86km of action.

Positions after leg 1:

1 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 1h11m56.3s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1.4s
3 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroen C3 WRC) +3.0s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +6.3s
5 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Ford Fiesta WRC) +7.1s
6 Dani Sordo/Marc Marti (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +10.8s
7 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +12.8s
8 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindström (Toyota Yaris WRC) +33.6s
9 Stephane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (Citroen C3 WRC): +1m02.2s
10 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m05.5s

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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