Juho Hänninen has made it three wins from four starts in this year’s Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) to move back into the lead of the series with a dramatic victory on Sata Rallye Açores in Portugal.
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. However, 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 1.3 seconds 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 has won more IRC rounds than any other driver with eight victories.
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.
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.
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.