Juho Hanninen heads the battle of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge greats on Barum Czech Rally Zlin following a day of high drama on the demanding all-asphalt stages in south-east Czech Republic.
Hanninen, IRC title-winner in 2010, leads three-time runner-up Jan Kopecky by 11.4s with defending IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen 18.0s behind the Czech hero heading into Sunday's six special stages. With the Skoda Fabia Super 2000-driving trio winning a total of 21 IRC events between them, the final-day chase for IRC glory is set to thrill, particularly if rain once again forms the backdrop to the high-speed action.
Hanninen, chasing his first victory in Czech Republic, began Saturday's eight tests trailing surprise overnight leader Tomas Kostka by 6.4s. He moved in front by winning the day's opening run following an inspired decision to opt for slick tyres for the drying stage when most of his rivals went for intermediate or rain tyres believing the conditions would be worse. However, his choice of a less soft tyre for the rain-hit second loop left him without vital grip on occasion and he began to slip back, only to retake top spot when Mikkelsen struggled on the first run Tesak stage, which would also prove his nemeses when it brought the day's action to a close this evening.
The Skoda UK Motorsport ace, fastest on three stages during the course of the day, reported marker poles visible during reconnaissance were no longer present, which he said had made his pacenotes less effective. With his confidence waning for the second run, the 23-year-old Norwegian slipped almost half a minute off the lead heading to the overnight halt in Otrokovice.
“It was such a difficult stage and I didn't have any confidence in my pacenotes,” said Mikkeslen. “It was the last slippery part on really shiny tarmac where I didn't go fast enough. Maybe I needed to push harder but then there's a big risk to go off. We've dropped back but there's still a long way to go.”
Hanninen also reported problems of his own in Tesak, particularly on the first run through: “It was like driving on ice with slick tyres and I don't understand how I stayed on the road. Luckily we are here and leading and the car is in good shape but anything can happen yet.”
By completing Saturday's stages, Jan Kopecky has won his second Czech championship, which is running in tandem with the main IRC event. “This was my target and now I will speak to the team if I can have a big fight tomorrow with the other drivers,” he said.
Although he gradually lost touch with the leaders, Tomas Kostka – a frontrunner in the Czech touring car and rallysprint championships – excelled and rounded out an impressive day by going third fastest on Saturday's final test in his privateer Fabia. The Zlin resident said the performance had exceeded his expectations. Roman Kresta, meanwhile, is fifth with Robert Barrable a strong sixth following a high-speed spin on stage seven from which the Irishman admitted he was lucky to emerge unscathed.
Estonian Karl Kruuda is seventh with Jaromir Tarabus eighth following earlier powersteering woes. Austria's Andreas Aigner is the leading IRC Production Cup runner in a fine ninth overall in his Subaru Impreza R4 STI with Micha³ So³owow, from Poland, completing the top ten in his Peugeot 207 S2000.