Juho Hanninen has strengthened his grip on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge drivers' title with his second victory of the season on Rally d'Italia-Sardegna.
Driving a factory Skoda Motorsport-run Fabia, the Finn took a slender lead on the rally's ninth stage and pulled clear when Kris Meeke, his closest pursuer, crashed heavily on stage ten. The accident was captured live on Eurosport, which covered four stages of the sun-coated gravel event as they happened.
Hanninen's win means he has finished on the podium on all five rounds of the IRC so far this season and is now 11 points to the good in the battle for the coveted drivers' accolade. With team-mate Jan Kopecky taking third behind Peugeot driver Paolo Andreucci, Skoda now tops the manufacturers' table by 34 points.
Andreucci started Sunday's six stages 7.4s clear of fellow Peugeot runner Meeke, but lost more than 20 seconds with a sluggish run through the first Coiluna stage after opting to run a soft suspension set-up on his Peugeot Sport Italia 207, which resulted in a handling imbalance. After dropping to third, Andreucci moved to second when Meeke crashed. However, he then had to stave off Kopecky's advances over the final two runs. He prevailed by 2.6s after setting the fastest time on the last Monte Olia run.
Kopecky had been playing catch up after a moment on stage three when he inflicted sizable damage to his Fabia's front-right corner striking a rock, which necessitated a rapid overhaul in service by his mechanics.
Meeke was 3.6s behind Hanninen when he understeered off the road on a sweeping left-hand bend. His Peugeot UK 207 ended up on its side and would go no further. It was a disappointing end to an impressive drive by the defending IRC champion, who claimed two stage wins during the course of the event.
Thierry Neuville secured a notable fourth overall in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 on his first gravel event in a four-wheel drive car. It was also the first time the 21-year-old has finished an IRC round in three attempts having crashed out on his last two outings.
P-G Andersson had fought his way up to seventh place only for a transmission failure to ground his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X two kilometres from the end of stage 10 when he was closing on sixth-placed Teemu Arminen for the honour of finishing as the leading driver in a conventional Group N car.
Arminen admitted to adopting a more cautious approach on Sunday in order to secure a finish in the Italian Gravel Rally Trophy, which rewarded double points in Sardinia. The Finn's conservatism in his Subaru Impreza ultimately let in Bruno Magalhaes for fifth overall, while Arminen clinched the Italian Gravel title with two rounds remaining when Mauro Trentin retired on the last stage.