Skoda Motorsport's Jan Kopecky won the 45th Canon Mecsek Rallye by the smallest margin in the history of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge on Sunday after a dramatic final day of action.
In an event marked by close battles throughout the field, Team Peugeot Belgium Luxembourg's Thierry Neuville won the final stage but lost out to the Czech driver overall by just 0.8s.
Right up until the penultimate stage, the rally looked like it belonged to Skoda UK's Andreas Mikkelsen. The overnight leader started the day strongly and built an advantage with a commanding early stage win. But he then backed off too much on the first stage of the afternoon. With the pressure back on, 6.2km into SS13 Mikkelsen slid wide on gravel in a fast right-hand corner and the back of his car hit a tree. He was able to keep the heavily damaged Fabia S2000 moving until the next junction, but he then had to park it.
“We had the perfect weekend up until stage thirteen,” he said. “We had led from the start, I was driving smart, Ola [Floene] was doing an amazing job and the car was faultless. I'm so disappointed about what happened.
“Our rally came to an end on an uphill fast right-hand corner over a crest, and where it tightened a little there was gravel all over the road. It was a repeat of a stage we'd done this this morning, and the first time through there was no gravel. Even on the second run there was a nothing on the road until that point. When we hit the gravel there was no grip at all and we slid off the road in sixth gear and hit a tree. We are getting so close to winning a rally now, it's just a shame we couldn't fulfil it here.”
“Andreas certainly deserved to win here, because he was fastest of all of us,” added Kopecky. “[But] on the other hand, we had good luck, one of the things you need in rallying. We are in the lead of the IRC Championship now, which is very positive before the final stages of this series.”
The battle for the lead between the Skoda team-mates wasn't the only story of the day. Peugeot's Thierry Neuville was third overnight and began the day within striking distance of the leader. There could be no question of team orders up front as Neuville racked up a succession of stage wins, and after Mikkelsen's retirement Neuville ended the penultimate stage 8.1s behind new leader Kopecky.
To close the gap over the remaining 17.7km would be a tall order, and so it proved. Neuville won the final stage convincingly but fell just short of overall victory, by 0.8s. Could they have snatched victory in the final stage? Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul will be pondering that between now and the next round.
“We changed the set-up and the car felt much better today, and I felt more confident. I continued to push and push and we felt really good,” said Neuville, who took the Colin McRae
IRC Flat Out Trophy for his charging drive. “We had just a little moment on the last stage today, Nicolas was maybe a little too late with the pace note, but we managed it and we could continue. Maybe we lost the rally there but yesterday I was not driving so good on a few stages, so it's hard to say. Today it was like we switched off and went flat out.”