Juho Hänninen has made it three wins from four starts in this year’s Intercontinental Rally Challenge to move back into the lead of the all-action series with a dramatic victory on Sata Rallye Açores.
Driving a ŠKODA Motorsport Fabia Super 2000, the defending IRC champion was embroiled in a close battle with rising star Andreas Mikkelsen starting the final day of the gravel event. But a courageous run through Saturday’s second stage handed him a slender advantage over the Norwegian that he maintained to the finish.
A hat trick of stage wins on Friday afternoon had propelled Mikkelsen to within 1.3s of Hänninen starting day three. And the fight for glory took another dramatic twist when Mikkelsen went faster than Hänninen on Saturday’s opening run to snatch the lead by 2.7s, despite bashing his Fabia’s left-rear wheel on an earth bank in thick fog.
With fog still proving a nuisance on stage 14, Mikkelsen admitted he was too cautious through the run and slipped back as Hänninen threw caution to the wind to regain the lead with a blistering drive. Mikkelsen won the Grupo Marques superspecial to narrow the Finn’s margin to 10.9s with two stages remaining when a decision was made for both drivers to hold station to ensure a dominant finish for the Czech manufacturer, which now heads Peugeot in the makes’ standings by 48 points.
The result also means Hänninen, who was using Michelin tyres and has won more IRC rounds than any other driver with eight victories, secured the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, which is presented on all rounds of the IRC to the driver best embodying the spirit of the rallying legend.
Although he ultimately had to settle for second place, the 22-year-old Mikkelsen can take plenty of positives from his mature performance in the Azores after he recorded a total of six stage wins and his first podium since RACMSA Rally of Scotland last season.
Bruno Magalhães, the winner in the Azores in 2010, was in third place at the start of day three when the rear differential support on his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 broke, forcing the 31-year-old’s retirement following Saturday’s first stage. “The support was almost on the ground and there was nothing we could do,” he said. “One more time it is bad luck when we are fighting for the podium. I’m very disappointed.”
Magalhães’ misfortune enabled Jan Kopecký to claim a comfortable third place despite the onset of a powersteering problem on Saturday morning, which proved a particular hindrance to the Czech driver on the very narrow and twisty stage 14. With a clear margin over Bryan Bouffier in fourth, the mechanical failure went unpunished and Kopecký took his fourth podium finish of the season.
Bouffier was the highest-placed event newcomer at the wheel of his Peugeot France 207. The Rallye Monte-Carlo winner ran first on the road on the final day and his capture of fourth overall means he remains firmly in contention for the IRC drivers’ crown.
Patrik Sandell said he lacked the confidence to attack on Saturday’s opening fog-hit stage and adopted a cautious approach to finish fifth in his ŠKODA Sweden-entered Fabia, his best result in the IRC to date. He rounded out a solid performance by winning the last stage.
Ricardo Moura dominated the IRC Production Cup category in his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer and finished sixth overall in the process. Little troubled the local hero who resisted the temptation to try to replicate the fifth place he achieved in the Azores in 2010 in order to secure maximum points in the Azorean and Portuguese championships. Vitor Lopes finished seventh in a Subaru Impreza with Vitor Pascoal eighth at the wheel of another Lancer.
Behind Sergio Silva in ninth, Yokohama-backed Fumio Nutahara claimed his maiden IRC drivers’ championship point on his first appearance in Subaru’s R4-specification Impreza. The Japanese thought his challenge was over when his car’s engine cut following a water splash on stage 14 but he fought back to clinch 10th overall.
Jean-Michel Raoux extended his lead of the IRC 2WD Cup by finishing an impressive second in class to Paulo Maciel. Defending champion Harry Hunt’s challenge ended on Saturday’s opening stage when he got beached on an earth bank.
After retiring when he broke his suspension nudging an earth bank on Friday morning, Guy Wilks elected not to restart on Saturday under SupeRally regulations in his Peugeot UK 207. Nutahara’s Subaru team-mate Toshi Arai did restart under SupeRally following his exit on Friday with an electrical fault but he suffered further delay when he had to stop to change a damaged tyre on stage 14.
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