Jan Kopecky strode to a dominant victory on the Barum Czech Rally Zlin on Sunday, round eight of the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
In so doing the 27-year-old became the first Czech driver in a Czech car to win the biggest motor sport event in the Czech Republic for eight years, enveloping the enormous crowds that lined the stages in celebration.
At the wheel of a works Skoda Fabia S2000, Kopecky took the lead from his team-mate Juho Hanninen on SS2 and never looked back - his winning margin at the finish being almost exactly one minute after 15 fast and gruelling stages over two legs.
“This has been the perfect event for me and everyone involved,” Kopecky enthused amid an emotional reception in host city Zlin. “The car never missed a beat and I was able to concentrate the whole time on keeping an advantage. The atmosphere has been fantastic all week, the fans have given such amazing support I am so proud for them and for Skoda to bring home the win.”
Second place fell to championship leader Kris Meeke after a remarkable comeback drive from 33rd position on Friday night. The Peugeot UK driver started the rally with a five point advantage over Kopecky and worked hard all weekend in order to keep his seat at the top of the points' table. His championship hopes were aided when two of the other main contenders hit trouble - Abarth team leader Giandomenico Basso crashing out on SS8 during torrential rain and Benelux Peugeot ace Freddy Loix suffering a puncture that put his car out of commission on SS10.
“There is so much to like about this rally, from the atmosphere to the stages themselves, which really ask some big questions of you as a driver,” said Meeke. “We were unlucky to pick up the puncture on the first stage that dropped us back, but I have to admit to making a few mistakes along the way that fortunately didn't cost us anything except a chance to really pressure Jan for the lead.”
The podium was completed by the second Skoda Motorsport Fabia of Juho Hanninen, the Finnish gravel expert finding himself gaining confidence on the bumpy and fast asphalt around Zlin as the rally progressed.
“I wasn't too optimistic that we could finish this high before the start,” he said. “But then we won the first stage! After that things were a bit more normal for me, the pace was incredible over the first day and so I decided not to take risks and build up my pace, which worked well in the end. I had a spin today and dropped to fourth but we were lucky and got it back.”
Hanninen's result elevates him to fifth in the IRC points table, passing defending champion Nicolas Vouilloz. The Frenchman - Loix's team-mate in the Benelux Peugeot team - started the rally strongly but was forced out of second place on SS4 when his 207 S2000 caught fire.