Andreas Mikkelsen moved into an early lead on Rally Hungary despite a spin on SS3, leaving him with only 0.5 seconds in hand over European Rally Championship points leader Alexey Lukyanuk.
Despite almost a year out of active competition Mikkelsen was immediately on the pace, swiftly taking the lead from Miko Marczyk on Újhuta.
Marczyk had won the opening superspecial on Friday night but an overheating rear differential hindered his progress on Saturday morning, losing over a minute across the day’s first two stages and falling to 13th.
Mikkelsen then went fastest on Füzér, the longest stage of the rally at 14.85-miles, despite a spin which the two-time Intercontinental Rally Champion reckoned cost him “10 to 15 seconds”.
His winning margin on Füzér was only 0.2s though and with Lukyanuk picking up a stage win on Újhuta, the 2018 ERC champion remains right on Mikkelsen’s tail.
Craig Breen cut a frustrated figure yet still made progress, rising from fifth to third on Füzér.
Coming into a junction towards the end of the stage, Breen locked up under braking and stalled his Hyundai i20 R5, dropping about 10s and compromising what “would have been a very good run”.
Breen then had a spin on Füzér to cap off a “silly, silly morning” but despite the annoyance at his errors, he was only 2.4s off Mikkelsen’s pace and slotted into third, 11.5s off the lead.
The rise up the leaderboard for Breen came at ERC1 Junior title contenders Oliver Solberg and Grégoire Munster’s expense, who dropped back to fourth and fifth respectively.
Solberg was another driver to spin on Füzér, though his biggest problem during the first two Saturday stages had been tire choice.
Full wets had been fitted to Solberg’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, gambling on clawing time back on the slippery gravel and mud sections even if the asphalt sections were mostly dry.
Despite being fourth fastest Solberg felt the plan hadn’t worked, then faced a headache when the short liaison time between Újhuta and Füzér meant he couldn’t fit the two slick tires in the Fabia’s boot in place of wets.
Solberg dropped 17.2s to Mikkelsen on Füzér and has Munster inching closer behind him, with the Hyundai Junior now only 2.3s behind as he leapt from 17th to 5th.
Erik Cais had held fourth place after Friday night’s opening superspecial but lost almost four minutes when he went off-road and got stuck, dropping him well out of contention.
Niki Mayr-Melnhof moved into sixth despite going off-road on Újhuta, 0.6s up on Emil Lindholm and half a minute off the lead.
Both deposed Efrén Llarena of position, who fell from sixth to eighth as he spun on the exit of a muddy hairpin.
Yoann Bonato – who finished second on Rally Fafe Montelongo last time out in the ERC – continued to struggle after losing 20s in Friday’s superspecial, as he also went off on Füzér and needed fans to push him back on the road.
Despite being on the podium last time around, Bonato is now all the way down in 21st.
Frigyes Turan, who won this rally last year against ERC opposition, dropped three minutes with a front-left puncture.
Leading positions after SS3
1 Mikkelsen (Škoda) 23m47.4
2 Lukyanuk (Citroën) +0.5s
3 Breen (Hyundai) +11.5s
4 Solberg (Škoda) +18.4s
5 Munster (Hyundai) +20.7s
6 Mayr-Melnhof (Ford) +29.0s
7 Lindholm (Škoda) +29.6s
8 Llarena (Citroën) +34.8s
9 Griebel (Citroën) +46.5s
10 Herczig (Volkswagen) +51.7s