Sousa leads with 3 stages to go

Sousa leads with 3 stages to goFrom Azores Airlines Rallye [ 17/05/2014 ].
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--- Bernardo Sousa leads by nearly 20 seconds: three more stages left to go --- Kevin Abbring has an adventurous morning, nearly going off the road --- Eurosport televises the Tronqueira stage live, with spectacular action

Portuguese driver Bernardo Sousa is edging closer to his dream of winning SATA Rallye Acores after stretching his advantage to just 19.1 seconds with three tricky stages still to run: a repeat of this morning's tests. There is everything left to play for in what should be a dramatic finale on the island of Sao Miguel.

The Ford Fiesta RRC driver started the day with an advantage of just 6.3 seconds over Peugeot's Kevin Abbring but this has now increased to nearly 20 seconds; also as a result of a 10-second road penalty for Abbring due to late arrival at the final stage yesterday.

But Abbring has not had a smooth day either so far today, with a suspected engine problem on the first stage of the day and two 'moments' on the second stage: Tronquiera, televised live on Eurosport. Despite that, he actually took 5.6 seconds out of Sousa on the first stage, Graminhais, so the battle is well and truly alive.

The final stage of the loop this morning was the Grupo Marques superspecial, with competitors racing side by side. The superspecial winner was Kajetan Kajetanowicz, returning under the super rally regulations following his retirement yesterday with broken suspension. Another driver returning under the super rally rules was local hero Ricardo Moura, who was also out yesterday. He won the first two stages of today's loop convinvingly, driving a Ford Fiesta R5 like Kajetanowicz.

Abbring, a former Volkswagen protégé on the World Rally Championship, commented: "I've not been over-driving. After the first stage it was strange: it wasn't quite that the engine was on three cylinders but sometimes I felt I had power and sometimes I didn't. It was scary. On the second stage it was stupid: I shouldn't have made a mistake. I came to a watersplash and there was more water than I expected, so the car aquaplaned and went sideways. I'm taking no risks: I was just trying to have a clean stage."

Sousa does not believe for a second though that his Dutch rival has given up on victory. "If these are the times he can do when he has a problem, I'd like to see what he can do when he has no problems!" joked the Portuguese driver. "On the first stage of the day I felt a loss of power: maybe it was the altitude. At least we've got back some of the seconds we lost this morning. I'm starting to believe that it is possible."

Such is the intensity of the battle at the front that Vassily Gryazin is starting to drop back in third, with the Ford Fiesta R5 driver now more than two minutes behind the leader. "I'm driving well, but maybe relaxing a little bit too much," he said. "But I am happy; we go to the finish."

The Russian now has a more comfortable margin, because Bruno Magalhaes - a former two-time winner of the rally - was reported stopped on the opening stage, with the bonnet open on his Peugeot 207 S2000.

Magalhaes's problem benefitted Frenchman Jean-Michel Raoux, who moved up to fourth place with another Peugeot 207 S2000 and is on course to record his best-ever finish in the European Rally Championship, having competed in the Azores two times before.

"I'm having a fantastic time," commented Raoux. "Now we're beginning to set some more competitive times and I'm enjoying the stages."

For the fastest driver of the day though, Ricardo Moura, the stages were a frustrating glimpse of what might have been. "I'm not really into it today," he admitted, despite setting two fastest times. "I just want to show everyone that I could have done it…"

Stephane Lefebvre continues to lead the ERC Junior classification in a remarkable 11th overall with his Peugeot 208 R2. He now has a two-minute advantage in the class, but said that it had been a tough morning. "We were first on the road because we were 10th last night, so I've spent a lot of time sweeping up loose gravel," explained the Frenchman. "It's not been easy, but at least it's a good education."

The final loop of three stages gets underway with SS15 at 15:16 local time.