Andreas Mikkelsen has begun the defence of his Intercontinental Rally Challenge title in style by winning SATA Rallye Açores this afternoon (Saturday) following three days and almost 200 kilometres of thrilling high-speed action.
Juho Hänninen, the 2010 IRC champion and the winner of this event last term, made it a one-two for ŠKODA by claiming second overall with Bryan Bouffier the top Peugeot finisher in third. Local hero Ricardo Moura, in sixth, took top honours in the IRC Production Cup with Paulo Maciel claiming victory in the IRC 2WD Cup.
Mikkelsen’s performance, which extends his run of victories in the IRC to three in a row after he won the 2011 season-closing rounds in Scotland and Cyprus – a new IRC record – earned him the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, awarded to the driver whose heroics behind the wheel best embody the spirit of the rallying legend.
“This is the perfect start to the season, I am so happy for the ŠKODA UK team, for my co-driver Ola [Fløene] and this is the perfect result for ŠKODA,” said Mikkelsen, who set the fastest time on 10 stages. “We had a tough fight with Juho and we had to push but it couldn’t have gone better.”
Hänninen started the event as one of the favourites for victory but a costly spin on Friday morning meant he had to settle for second best in his factory-run Fabia.
“We came here for the victory but it was not good enough to stop Andreas,” said the Finn, the most successful driver in the history of the IRC. “Andreas made no mistake, I made a big one – he made a good rally and deserved his victory.”
Bryan Bouffier had been embroiled in a close fight for the final podium spot with fellow Peugeot 207 S2000 driver Bruno Magalhães until the Portuguese crashed out on day two. It left Frenchman Bouffier to take a comfortable third overall. “To be on the podium on the opening round is very good and thanks to Peugeot for a really good car for this race,” he said.
ŠKODA Auto Deutschland’s Sepp Wiegand, making his IRC debut, won the battle to be the top German rising star in impressive fashion after he demoted Hermann Gassner Jr to fifth on Saturday’s first stage when Gassner Jr stalled the engine of his Red Bull Fabia S2000. And it got worse for Gassner Jr when he picked up a right-rear puncture after he struck an earth bank on the penultimate stage in his efforts to close up to Wiegand, whose decision to use soft compound tyres on Saturday morning’s loop of stages paid dividends.
“This is a really big moment for me on my second rally on gravel and my first in the IRC,” said Wiegand. “To be in the top five is unbelievable, I’m really, really happy.”
Behind sixth-placed IRC Production Cup winner Moura, Oleksandr Saliuk starred on his IRC debut in seventh on his first outing in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000. The Dream Team Ukraine driver set out with the sole aim of finishing so was thrilled to reach the end of the rain-affected event. Third fastest time on the second run through the Grupo Marques superspecial was a personal highlight for Saliuk.
Sérgio Silva was the leading Subaru driver in eighth overall with Ruben Rodrigues ninth and Miguel Barbosa claiming the final IRC point in 10th.
Rashid Al-Ketbi and Oleksiy Tamrazov both returned to the action on Saturday after their exits on Friday and both gained valuable experience with Skydive Dubai Rally Team’s Al-Ketbi particularly pleased afterwards. “It was very important for my team to be at the finish line and I have learned so much,” said the Emirati. “For these reasons I am very happy.”