The reigning IRC champion is making his debut on the legendary event, which has its origins in the famous Sicilian road race first run in 1906. Despite his lack of knowledge of the bumpy and slippery tests located east of the capital Palermo, Mikkelsen has set a rapid pace, going fastest on five stages to open up an advantage of 4.5s at the overnight halt in Termini Imerese on the banks of the Mediterranean sea.
"We’ve had a good day with no problems and no mistakes,” said the 22-year-old Mikkelsen from Norway. “There’s no question we want to win this rally but we have to find a good rhythm and push hard without going off the correct line. I’m enjoying driving on this rally but tomorrow is another long day.”
Jan Kopecky followed up his victory on Thursday night’s opening stage at Palermo’s old airport by outpacing Mikkelsen through the third Targa stage, which took place in ground temperatures of 48.6 degrees centigrade. The Czech said adjustments to the differential settings of his factory Fabia had improved the car’s handling and made it easier to drive. He remains firmly in the lead battle.
Having led on the previous IRC round in Corsica, Giandomenico Basso is third overnight and the top Italian driver in his turbocharged M-Sport Ford Fiesta RRC, 13.2s behind Mikkelsen. Running first on the road, Basso chose soft tyres in the morning in the hope of gaining more grip on the slippery asphalt, but found that the car was sliding too much. He went onto harder tyres in the afternoon and immediately felt more confident but admitted that his relative lack of experience of the event (which he last contested in 2007) and the car was still holding him back.
Despite reporting a lack of precision with the handling at the rear of his ŠKODA Italia-backed Fabia, Umberto Scandola climbed ahead of Italian championship rival Paolo Andreucci with the third fastest time on stage five and heads the multiple national champion by 11.2s after seven stages.
Andreucci, a six-time winner in Sicily, is in unaccustomed fifth position overnight, having been delayed by an incorrect tyre choice in the morning and set-up issues in the afternoon. Like Basso, Andreucci chose tyres that were too soft for the opening loop and reported that the roads were more slippery than he expected. From the start Andreucci struggled to find a perfect balance with his Peugeot Italia 207 S2000, reporting that the handling of the car felt unpredictable.
Craig Breen also lost ground in the morning by selecting a soft compound tyre. He hit back in the afternoon with an impressive upturn in pace only to suffer a turn-in problem after adjusting the front track of his HRT Motorsport Peugeot. Nevertheless he was able to move ahead of Matteo Gamba on stage seven.
Behind Gamba, Sepp Wiegand is a strong eighth overnight for ŠKODA Auto Deutschland, despite a scare two corners from the end of the final stage when he almost touched a wall. Peugeot driver Alessandro Perico is ninth after reporting various set-up issues with Marco Runfola completing the top 10 with no working handbrake on his 207.
Italian Junior champion Simone Campedelli heads the IRC 2WD Cup standings in 12th overall with Briton Harry Hunt impressing in second place on his Targa Florio debut. Massimiliano Rendina tops the IRC Production Cup division in 14th place, with Robert Consani close behind in his Renault Mégane, which has been hampered by an overheating engine glitch.
Martin Kangur is 18th overall and sixth in the IRC 2WD Cup on his return to the series in his Honda Civic Type R. Marco Tempestini is the top Subaru Impreza R4 driver in 19th with Johan Heloïse 21st in a similar car. Rashid Al-Ketbi’s recovery from the time penalty handed out for a route error on Thursday’s Palermo stage has brought him up to 24th position although a gearbox issue and an intercom malfunction in his Skydive Dubai Fabia slowed his progress.
Saturday’s action features two repeated stages over a competitive distance of 68.40 kilometres with the first run, Cefalù, getting underway at 08:32hrs local time. The finish is scheduled for 17:30hrs in the Targa Florio Village at Termini Imerese.