Defending Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion Juho Hanninen moved back to the top of the drivers' standings with a sensational victory on a thrilling Rally Islas Canarias El Corte Ingles, the second round of the twelve-event 2011 series.
Hanninen, at the wheel of a Skoda Motorsport Fabia, started the second day of the all-asphalt rally in third overall, albeit a scant 8.6secs behind team-mate Jan Kopecky as nine seconds covered the top four drivers. Despite going fastest on Saturday's opening stage, the Finn remained in third as Thierry Neuville shot ahead of Kopecky into the lead.
But when Neuville lost vital seconds on the next stage, Hanninen took a second successive fastest time and powered into first place. With Kopecky 0.1secs behind starting the final two stages, the battle of victory remained tightly poised, only for Hanninen to open up a slender advantage that he would never relinquish by winning the penultimate stage.
His success, which marked his first IRC victory on asphalt, puts him joint top with Freddy Loix, who finished fourth, on the list of all-time IRC event winners with six victories. It was also Skoda's first win of 2011, the Czech manufacturer's 110th year of motorsport participation, and means the marque now heads the makes' classification ahead of Peugeot.
"It has taken a long time but, finally, without any snow or nothing like that, I have won my first Tarmac rally and of course I am happy with that, but also because it was a big fight for the whole rally," Hanninen enthused, "You really needed to keep your concentration on this rally because nobody was making mistakes."
Kopecky made it a Skoda Fabia one-two and suggested he could have repeated his Rally Islas Canarias win from 2010 had his pacenotes been more precise, particularly on Saturday's first stage when he lost the lead of the rally he had held since stage two.
"It was a nice battle until the end," Kopecky noted, "Juho was flying and was lucky on the second to last stage because he hit a barrier with the back of his car pushing so hard. My pacenotes were not good on this rally in places and I think I lost first place because of this but Juho deserved to win."
Neuville claimed a hugely impressive third place in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 S2000, his first IRC event with new co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul. The 22-year-old from Belgium reported losing precious ground on stage ten after partly wearing out his tyres on the previous run in the high ambient temperatures. As well as causing his car to understeer, Neuville reckoned they contributed to his spin on a hairpin right.
However, it was Neuville's best performance in the IRC so far and earned him the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy. Awarded in memory of the late rally legend, the accolade is presented on all rounds of the IRC to the driver who best embodies the spirit of the former world champion.