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IRC: Neuville claims debut win in Corsica

15 May 2011

Thierry Neuville has claimed his maiden victory in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge after winning Tour de Corse-E.Leclerc, which finished in Ajaccio on Saturday evening.

Co-driven by Nicolas Gilsoul in a Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 Super 2000, Neuville belied his 22 years to triumph on one of the world's most legendary and demanding events, billed locally as the Return of the Myth. In the process he becomes the youngest winner in the five-year history of the IRC, beating the record set by Anton Alen, who was 24 when he won Rally Russia in 2007.

Neuville started day three, the longest of the asphalt rally at 138.44 kilometres, with an overnight advantage of 23.4s. Although he dropped precious seconds on the opening stage after reporting a slight lack of handling precision due to his decision to carry two spare tyres, he hit back with the fastest time on the next three sun-baked stages, which was enough to put him out of reach of the chasing pack.

“This is an incredible result after such a long rally,” he said. “I never imagined I could win in the IRC so soon and never dreamed that I would win here in Corsica. But Nicolas and I have done a great job together and the car has always been good. I'm very happy.”

Jan Kopecky meanwhile narrowed Neuville's lead to 14.5s after winning Saturday's first stage, by making the most of the smoother and wider roads on day three, as well as benefitting from changes to his car's rear differential settings and overall balance. Although he posted a series of top two stage times thereafter he wasn't able to dislodge Neuville from first place and took the runner-up spot for the second rally in a row in his Skoda Motorsport Fabia S2000.

“Of course I am happy to be on the podium because that's good for the championship,” Kopecky reflected. “It's been a difficult rally though and I was not always happy with the set-up. But I am pleased to be at the finish.”

Freddy Loix finished third in his BFO Skoda Rally Team Fabia to move five points clear in the race for the IRC drivers' title. However, the Belgian conceded that he didn't have the “right feeling” with his car to challenge for a seventh IRC career victory.

“The others were too quick for me so I played the championship card this weekend,” Loix explained. “I don't know why but I did not have the right feeling on this rally. It was nothing wrong with the car but I couldn't battle for the win.”

In fact Loix had trailed Andreas Mikkelsen in fourth place, only for the young Norwegian to pick up a front-right puncture on stage 12 and drop more than three minutes after delays replacing the damaged tyre, which promoted Loix to third as a result.

Mikkelsen, whose Skoda UK Motorsport mechanics had completed an extensive overhaul of his Fabia at midday service including fitting a replacement gearbox, driveshafts, propshaft and steering following a torque link bolt failure on stage 10, was on course for his first podium of 2011 had he not hit trouble.

“I've never been so disappointed on a rally as I am now,” said the 21-year-old, who eventually took sixth place by winning the event-closing special stage. “We were taking the same lines as before and driving at the same speed. Suddenly I could feel there was no air in the front-right tyre [even though] we hadn't hit anything.”

Peugeot France's Bryan Bouffier, who briefly led on Friday morning only to drop back with a puncture, began the final day in sixth overall but fought his way to fourth with a succession of impressive stage times. However, his challenge came unstuck when he crashed out on the final stage.

Pierre Campana set the second fastest time on Saturday's opening test in his Munaretto Peugeot. But after losing ground on the next stage with an intercom glitch, the Corsican elected to focus on preserving a strong finish on his home rally, rather than risk going off the road on his first appearance in the IRC in a Super 2000 car. However, a front-right puncture five kilometres into the final stage looked to have scuppered those hopes. But with Bouffier crashing, Campana was able to clinch a hugely impressive fourth.

Frenchman Julien Maurin overcame brake and tyre wear problems to secure his first IRC points aboard his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 in a strong seventh overall. Brake problems also slowed Bruno Magalhaes on day two but the Peugeot Sport Portugal ace was able to improve his confidence behind the wheel as the event progressed to clinch a solid fifth.

Finn Toni Gardemeister, in a TGS Worldwide Skoda Fabia, scored points for the third event running in eighth, having spent much of the event experimenting with different set-up options. The Finn had to limp through the final stage with a broken gearbox.

Patrik Sandell took ninth on his IRC debut with Skoda Sweden with Corsican Jean-Mathieu Leandri fighting back from a front-right puncture on stage nine to clinch the final point in P10. Sandell, a favourite for a podium finish before the start, was never able to find an optimum set-up although his efforts weren't helped by a broken rear differential on Saturday morning. He also admitted to struggling to adapt to the tight and twisty Corsican stages. He started the final day in 11th but snatched two championship points.

Toshi Arai brought Subaru's R4-specification Impreza to the finish in 13th overall on its first competitive outing. Florian Gonon landed IRC Production Cup honours in his N4 Impreza with Corsican Pierre-Antoine Guglielmi winning the IRC 2WD Cup in a Clio R3.

Guy Wilks slid off the road from third overall on Saturday's second stage, where the Peugeot UK driver remained stranded. Saudi Arabian Yazeed Al Rajhi, in a Kronos Racing 207, finished an encouraging 14th on only his third asphalt rally.

The 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge now continues next month with the Prime Yalta Rally in Ukraine, which runs from 2-4 June.


Tour de Corse-E.Leclerc - Top ten IRC positions (after day three):

1. Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul Peugeot 207 S2000 3h20m51.0s
2. Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary Skoda Fabia S2000 +15.5s
3. Freddy Loix/Frederic Miclotte Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m02.6s
4. Pierre Campana/Sabrina de Castelli Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m59.1s
5. Bruno Magalhaes/Paulo Grave Peugeot 207 S2000 +4m28.2s
6. Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene Skoda Fabia S2000 +4m30.1s
7. Julien Maurin/Olivier Ural M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 +4m33.3s
8. Toni Gardemeister/Tapio Suominen Skoda Fabia S2000 +6m33.3s
9. Patrik Sandell/Staffan Parmander Skoda Fabia S2000 +8m28.8s
10. Jean-Mathieu Leandri/Pierre Marien Leonardi Peugeot 207 S2000 +9m41.5s

IRC Production Cup: Florian Gonon/Sandra Arlettaz (Subaru Impreza WRX)
IRC 2WD Cup: Pierre-Antoine Guglielmi/Jean-Francois Porcu (Renault Clio R3)


IRC Drivers' standings (after round 3 of 12) – Top 10:

1. Freddy Loix 45pts
2. Jan Kopecky 40pts
= Thierry Neuville 40pts
4. Juho Hanninen 33pts
5. Bryan Bouffier 31pts
6. Guy Wilks 25pts
7. Andreas Mikkelsen 16pts
8. Bruno Magalhaes 14pts
9. Pierre Campana 12pts
= Stephane Sarrazin 12pts


Manufacturers' standings (after round 3 of 12):

1. Skoda 106pts
2. Peugeot 104pts
3. Subaru 32pts
4. M-Sport 23pts
5. PROTON 16pts
6. Honda 12pts
7. Ralliart 6pts
8. Abarth 4pts


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