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Circuit of Ireland: The sun shines for Esapekka Lappi

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Esapekka Lappi and Janne Ferm in their Skoda Fabia S2000 during Special Stage 1

Esapekka Lappi and Janne Ferm in their Skoda Fabia S2000 during Special Stage 1

Esapekka Lappi and Janne Ferm in their Skoda Fabia S2000 during Special Stage 1

Esapekka Lappi was a happy man; happier than an Easter bunny in fact. The 23-year-old Finn led the Circuit of Ireland by 13 seconds at the end of the first leg after a dominant day in which he set fastest times on seven of the 10 stages and left rally favourite Craig Breen struggling to keep up.

What a difference a day made for Lappi. He had come to Belfast expecting rain and hoping wet roads would balance out the performance gap between his S2000 Skoda and Breen's new generation Peugeot 208 T15 which had been so evident on the Acropolis Rally. But when the rain finally arrived, during the qualifying stage on Thursday, he was well off the pace and thoroughly down in the dumps.

The Finn who has won all around the world talked about being satisfied with a podium place.

However, it all changed when the sun came out yesterday morning and he started flying over the bone-dry roads. Fastest time followed fastest time and he was beaming all over his face.

"I'm surprised, very surprised. I didn't expect to be so fast, not so much faster than the other guys. But it is good – and I could go faster.

"I wouldn't say I am controlling the rally but I am trying to make sure I don't make any stupid mistakes. I am so happy."

So what had changed since the Acropolis Rally where he finished fourth? "Nothing really, the car is always good and it was perfect today," he said before adding, slightly immodestly: "It's not about the car on the stages here, it's about the driver."

It was a compliment to the fantastic stages the Discover Northern Ireland Circuit team had set out for the rally. They were uniformly praised by driver after driver including Breen despite the fact they were taking a heavy toll on his Peugeot.

The European championship leader finished both runs over the Hamilton's Folly stage with the back window of the T16 shattered, the result of heavy landings off the notorious jumps, and on the second loop the rear bumper had gone AWOL after what he called "a huge moment" on the Buck's Head stage where he touched a bank with the car in fifth gear.

Last night it was Breen's turn to look dejected even though he finished the day with two fastest times.

"I can't say I'm happy to be second. I'm pushing as hard as I can but Esapekka is pushing too so it is difficult. Tomorrow is a different rally, we'll see," he said, indicating the different nature of the day two stages might suit the Peugeot better.

In fact Breen had inherited second place from his team-mate Kevin Abbring who had been ahead until the seventh stage where his Peugeot finished two minutes down with steam or smoke leaking from under the bonnet. He retired shortly afterwards, the T16 apparently again suffering from the mysterious overheating problem which had forced it out of the lead in Greece.

Behind Lappi and Breen, Robert Barrable had moved up to third but already the gap had opened to nearly one-and-a-half minutes.

The Dubliner, who has broken into his World championship programme to contest his home ERC round, said his R5 Ford Fiesta was fine. "It's me," he said, "it just hasn't gelled for some reason. And I've struggled to get to grips with Hamilton's Folly."

Nevertheless he was holding off Lappi's Skoda team-mate, German Sepp Wiegand, while Sam Moffett made it three Irish drivers in the top five.

The Peugeot of Robert Consani was sixth ahead of Neil Simpson's Skoda and then came Daniel McKenna, the Pirelli Star Driver Award winner from Clones. Josh Moffett, Sam's younger brother, was ninth and leading the production category in his Mitsubishi with Chris Ingram in 10th.

Finn Jukka Korhonen crashed on the penultimate stage, and also exiting on day one were former Irish national champion Aaron MacHale in his Mitsubishi on stage two and Italian Andrea Crugnola put his Peugeot off the road on stage three.

Belfast Telegraph