IRC: Kopecky takes closest ever IRC victory in Hungary
12 September 2011
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.”
Freddy Loix brought his BFO-Skoda home third. Having shown speed on the opening day, he couldn't hit the same heights on the second.
“It's a combination of factors,” he said. “The feeling of the car is better, I have a good feeling but I'm losing a few seconds here and there. I can see where I'm losing but I can't react for the stage after, so it's always the same silly mistakes. It's not a question of gravel on the road. If I feel well, like in the Barum Rally, gravel is no problem. It's more about being on the big attack and about confidence.”
Confidence had been a problem for Peugeot France's Bryan Bouffier on the opening day as he struggled with set-up issues and lack of trust in the veracity of his pace notes. Today he was within the top five on every stage, but the overall gap to the leaders was too great for the Rallye Monte-Carlo winner to overcome: “The car worked very well today,” he said. “I had a better feeling and we took some points.”
Fifth fell to Hermann Gassner Jr in only his second asphalt rally in the Red Bull Skoda. Gassner improved continuously throughout the event, beginning just outside the top 10 and ultimately passing more experienced entrants on merit. By Sunday morning he was posting stage times well within the top 10, and was fourth quickest over the last two stages.
It was only on the penultimate stage that Gassner unseated local IRC Production Cup entrant Gyorgy Aschenbrenner, who used his local knowledge to remarkable effect. Regularly setting top 10 stage times aboard his Ralliart Lancer Evolution IX, Aschenbrenner delighted the local fans and drew one of the biggest crowds in the service park.
Brake problems on the first day consigned Toni Gardemeister to the lower portion of the top 10, and his counter-attack this morning was hindered by a misfire on SS1. “It felt like bad turbo lag,” he said. “It would pause, there was nothing, then the power would come in. I stopped after the stage and went under the bonnet, played with some connections, but we had to look at it in service.”
In the afternoon, though, the TGS Worldwide Skoda came on song and Gardemeister had no complaints. “The car is working brilliantly,” he said, “and we've learned a lot about this new rally.”
Hungarian entrant Robert Butor finished eighth after a strong run, beating several IRC regulars in his Peugeot 207 S2000: “We are very happy. For us the Hungarian championship was the most important and in this we are second, so it's good.”
Bruno Magalhaes was ninth in the Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 S2000, having solved the set up and gear ratio issues that hindered him on the first day. “This rally was very tough,” he said. “It was hard to run against local drivers – they were fast.”
Beppo Harrach rounded out the top 10 in a Ralliart Lancer Evolution IX, though Karl Kruuda - who suffered a puncture in SS12 - was just 2.1s behind after the final stage: “This result is much more than we expected before the rally,” said Harrach. “To be able to fight with all the Super 2000 cars ahead of us - amazing!”
The 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge now continues later this month with Rallye Sanremo, which runs from 22-24 September.
Canon Mecsek Rallye - Top ten IRC positions (after day two):
1. Jan Kopecky /Petr Stary Skoda Fabia S2000 2h00m06.7s
2. Thierry Neuville /Nicolas Gilsoul Peugeot 207 S2000 +0.08s
3. Freddy Loix /Frederic Miclotte Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m00.0s
4. Bryan Bouffier /Xavier Panseri Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m25.6s
5. Hermann Gassner Jr /Timo Gottschalk Skoda Fabia S2000 +2m32.5s
6. Gyorgy Aschenbrenner /Piko Zsuzsa Ralliart Lancer Evo IX +2m38.2s
7. Toni Gardemeister /Tapio Suominen Skoda Fabia S2000 +3m05.6s
8. Robert Butor /Igor Bacigal Peugeot 207 S2000 3m16.8s
9. Bruno Magalhaes /Paulo Grave Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m51.7s
10. Beppo Harrach /Andreas Schindlbacher Ralliart Lancer Evo IX 2m38.2s
IRC Production Cup: Gyorgy Aschenbrenner /Piko Zsuzsa (Ralliart Lancer EIX R4)
IRC 2WD Cup: Stefano Albertini /Simone Scattolin (Renault Clio R3)
IRC Drivers' standings (after round 8 of 11) – Top 10:*
1. Jan Kopecky 120pts
2. Freddy Loix 103pts
3. Juho Hanninen 98pts
4. Thierry Neuville 78pts
5. Bryan Bouffier 73pts
6. Andreas Mikkelsen 58pts
7. Guy Wilks 47pts
8. Toni Gardemeister 34pts
9. Hans Weijs 18pts
10. Bruno Magalhaes 16pts
* denotes best seven scores count
Manufacturers' standings (after round 8 of 11):
1. Skoda 285pts
2. Peugeot 199pts
3. M-Sport 70pts
4. Ralliart 67pts
5. Subaru 61pts
6. Proton 33pts
7. Honda 31pts
8. Abarth 14pts