Hyundai’s latest World Rally Championship signing Andreas Mikkelsen made a dream start with his new employer by taking the Rally Catalunya lead on Friday morning’s first loop of stages.
The WRC’s only mixed-surface event of the season was blessed with sunshine and blue skies – the sort of conditions championship leader Sebastien Ogier feared the most, running at the front of the field and sweeping the loose gravel aside.
Ogier wasn’t far away and a stunning time from first on the road through the longest test of the loop – the 24-mile Terra Alta test – an effort that kept M-Sport’s championship leader right in the thick of the fight.
But it was Mikkelsen, sixth fastest on stages one and two, who stormed through SS3 and into the lead in his Hyundai i20 WRC.
Mikkelsen was one of six drivers with four hard tyres beneath him for the longest stage and made full use of those and a slightly cleaner line that came from running ninth on the road to set the fastest time on Terra Alta and take the rally lead.
“It’s been a good morning,” said Mikkelsen.
“I made some changes to the car before the long stage, worked a little bit on the differential settings and this helped.
“I’m starting to feel more and more at home with the car now.”
Mikkelsen is just six tenths of a second ahead of his Norwegian countryman Mads Ostberg – who was also second fastest on SS3 – in his privateer Ford Fiesta WRC, despite dust being pumped into his cockpit on all three stages through a hole in the car.
“I can’t see where I’m going,” he said. “I could have been much faster; my co-driver can’t speak and we can’t breathe!”
Ogier is four seconds down on Ostberg in third, with team-mate Ott Tanak fourth after a puncture scare for the Estonian on SS3.
Britain’s Kris Meeke is top Citroen in fifth place after a trouble-free morning, while local hero Dani Sordo was worried by what he felt might have been a steering problem on his Hyundai halfway through Terra Alta.
The Spaniard is sixth, 12.3 off fellow i20 WRC driver Mikkelsen.
The third Hyundai of title hopeful Thierry Neuville was a further 3.5 down, with the Belgian the only driver to select six soft tyres for the morning loop.
His Michelins were destroyed by the end of SS3.
Jari-Matti Latvala is top Toyota in eighth, 4.4s ahead of team-mate Juho Hanninen.
Latvala had hoped for more from a morning on the hardest compound cover, but his team-mate Esapekka Lappi showed things could have been worse – the team’s youngest Finn lost all the brakes on his Yaris and shipped 45 seconds.
Elfyn Evans rounded out the top 10 after struggling for grip in his DMACK Fiesta.
Teemu Suninen has already established a lead of almost a minute in the WRC2 class.