Nasser Al-Attiyah leads the Cyprus Rally following a day of high drama on the sun-baked final round of the all-action 2012 Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
In ambient temperatures of 26 degrees centigrade, the Qatari - who took time out of his rallying career during the summer to win the bronze medal in the men's skeet shooting section of the London 2012 Olympics - completed Saturday's mixed-surface route with an advantage of 1min 30.2secs over Andreas Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen started the event with an unassailable advantage in his bid to make it back-to-back IRC titles and was leading following Friday night's Super Special Stage through the streets of host town Pafos. But a right-rear puncture on stage two resulted in a costly stop, before a broken right-rear damper meant further delay for the Škoda UK ace. Although he set a succession of fastest times in his bid to make up the lost time, he then slipped further back when he suffered a front-left puncture eight kilometres from the finish of Saturday's final stage while on a flat-out charge.
Despite leading, Al-Attityah hasn't enjoyed an entirely trouble-free day, after an alternator warning light on stage four left him momentarily distracted and resulted in his Fiesta striking a rock, bending its front-left steering. Repairs at service, including the fitting of a new alternator, restored his car to full working order. Although Al-Attiyah was unable to match Mikkelsen's pace during the afternoon loop of stages, his comfortable margin meant he hasn't needed to push.
“It's not been easy today,” Al-Attiyah admitted, “We made the decision to use the [reinforced] Michelin tyre, which is heavier, but it's better to lose 10secs in a stage than a lot more time with a puncture as the risk of punctures is very high in Cyprus. I need to win this rally for the Middle East championship and now we have a good lead for tomorrow. Our strategy then will depend on the pace of Andreas, but I am not concerned about his pace. If we keep our pace, we will win this rally.”
Mikkelsen said he had been taking big risks to cut the deficit to Al-Attiyah when he was delayed on stage seven.
“I was taking one second per kilometre out of Nasser, but then we had another puncture," he sighed, "To be honest, it could have happened anywhere because I was on the limit everywhere, hitting everything. The win is out of my hands now, as I will not be able to catch Nasser on pace alone.”
Sepp Wiegand was on course for his maiden podium finish in IRC when broken steering forced the Škoda Auto Deutschland driver's retirement on Saturday's closing stage. The youngster, making his Cyprus debut, had lost time when he spun on stage four and spent several seconds getting his Fabia S2000 pointing in the right direction in a narrow part of the run.
Wiegand's misfortune has elevated IRC Production Cup leader Toshi Arai into third overall, despite the Japanese Subaru Impreza R4 STI driver spending two minutes stuck off the road on stage three when he overshot a junction. It took the intervention of his co-driver, Dale Moscatt, to enable Arai to get back on the road after the Australian dragged several large rocks out of the way.
Arai's Tommi Mäkinen Racing team-mate Jarkko Nikara had been leading the category only for a puncture to drop him back on stage seven. He lost more time in dust clouds created by Marco Tempestini's Subaru after the Italian-born Romanian stopped to change a puncture of his own. In the confusion, Nikara, who has struggled with a headache and sickness throughout the day, damaged his Impreza's front-right suspension striking a rock.