Local hero Ricardo Moura is on track to win his home round of the FIA European Rally Championship for a second time after a flawless drive on a day when just nine seconds blanketed the leading trio at the Azores Rallye.
The multiple Azorean champion previously stood on the top step of the ERC podium at this rally in 2016 and, if things stay as they are, he could be doing the same again come Sunday afternoon.
In typical Azores fashion, the weather on Sao Miguel Island was variable. Relentless rain and fog peppered crews for most of the opening leg, although sunny spells later in the afternoon offered the tiniest hint of respite.
Moura – driving a rally car for the first time in six months – snatched the lead on the very first stage and stayed at the top for the remainder of the leg.
He enjoyed a trouble-free run aboard his ARC Sport-run Skoda Fabia Rally2 and claimed a brace of stage wins on both runs of Graminhais to lead Simon Wagner’s similar car by 8.4s at the overnight halt in Ponta Delgada.
"It's so, so muddy with a lot of water," said Moura. "It was such a difficult day with not too much pleasure to drive [in the conditions]. I think we went a little bit down on the second pass of Tronqueira and lost a little bit too much because I couldn't find a good rhythm.
“The rest of the day was okay. I am trying to be my best and see where it leads us. Eight seconds is nothing, so we will keep on doing our job tomorrow," he added.
Wagner’s ever-increasing pace had Moura keeping a watchful eye in his mirrors. The Austrian champion started steadily on his ERC comeback, but went on to claim his maiden European championship stage win on Coroa de Mata. With confidence brimming, he then flew from fourth to second with a storming run through Tronqueira 2.
Team MRF Tyres star Efrén Llarena is only six-tenths of a second behind in third. The Spaniard’s low starting position hindered him during the afternoon as standing water filled the ruts, but he remained very much in the fight.
Ken Torn was one of two non-Skoda drivers inside the top 10. He climbed to second on the opening loop in his Pirelli-equipped Ford Fiesta Rally2, but slipped to fourth after a poor time on the penultimate test and eventually ended 2.7s down on Llarena.
Round one runner-up Armindo Araújo was a hefty 23.8s further back. Most of that time was dropped with a brief excursion on the opener, and the 44-year-old was reinvigorated after making some set-up tweaks at midday service on his first Azores Rallye start since 2006.
Simone Tempestini upped his speed throughout the day and trailed Araújo by just 9.6s, with fellow ERC-Michelin Talent Factory member Javier Pardo another 6.3s down in seventh. Pardo was happy to build his experience despite spinning twice early on.
Simone Campedelli was hot on Pardo’s tail in his MRF-shod Fabia. Only 1.5sec split the pair after 107.54km of action, with Alberto Battistolli just 7.2sec further back.
Citroën C3 Rally2 pilot Rúben Rodrigues, the defending Azorean champion, rounded off the top 10. He also claimed his first ever ERC stage victory at Tronqueira 1 and finished the day 1min 2.1s adrift of the leaders.
Skoda Fabia Rally2 Kit driver Martins Sesks took a clean sweep of fastest times to lead ERC Open by 3m18.9s from Suzuki Swift stalwart Joan Vinyes.
There were no finishers in ERC3 after both Jon Armstrong and Igor Widlak retired their Fiesta Rally3s. Armstrong set a storming pace on SS2 before his car ground to a halt after a water splash on SS3, while Widlak’s machine faltered with brake troubles shortly afterwards.
Team Hyundai Portugal driver Ricardo Teodósio was another non-finisher after he ripped a wheel off of his i20 N Rally2 in Graminhais. Paulo Nobre also crashed his Fabia on the very next stage.
Renault Clio Rally4 driver Andrea Mabellini leads ERC4, 3.7s ahead of Toksport WRT team-mate Anthony Fotia.
The Azores Rallye continues today (Sunday) over an 86.18-kilometre route featuring seven stages.