Thierry Neuville has claimed his maiden victory in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge after winning Tour de Corse-E.Leclerc, which finished in Ajaccio on Saturday evening.
Co-driven by Nicolas Gilsoul in a Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 Super 2000, Neuville belied his 22 years to triumph on one of the world's most legendary and demanding events, billed locally as the Return of the Myth. In the process he becomes the youngest winner in the five-year history of the IRC, beating the record set by Anton Alen, who was 24 when he won Rally Russia in 2007.
Neuville started day three, the longest of the asphalt rally at 138.44 kilometres, with an overnight advantage of 23.4s. Although he dropped precious seconds on the opening stage after reporting a slight lack of handling precision due to his decision to carry two spare tyres, he hit back with the fastest time on the next three sun-baked stages, which was enough to put him out of reach of the chasing pack.
“This is an incredible result after such a long rally,” he said. “I never imagined I could win in the IRC so soon and never dreamed that I would win here in Corsica. But Nicolas and I have done a great job together and the car has always been good. I'm very happy.”
Jan Kopecky meanwhile narrowed Neuville's lead to 14.5s after winning Saturday's first stage, by making the most of the smoother and wider roads on day three, as well as benefitting from changes to his car's rear differential settings and overall balance. Although he posted a series of top two stage times thereafter he wasn't able to dislodge Neuville from first place and took the runner-up spot for the second rally in a row in his Skoda Motorsport Fabia S2000.
“Of course I am happy to be on the podium because that's good for the championship,” Kopecky reflected. “It's been a difficult rally though and I was not always happy with the set-up. But I am pleased to be at the finish.”
Freddy Loix finished third in his BFO Skoda Rally Team Fabia to move five points clear in the race for the IRC drivers' title. However, the Belgian conceded that he didn't have the “right feeling” with his car to challenge for a seventh IRC career victory.
“The others were too quick for me so I played the championship card this weekend,” Loix explained. “I don't know why but I did not have the right feeling on this rally. It was nothing wrong with the car but I couldn't battle for the win.”
In fact Loix had trailed Andreas Mikkelsen in fourth place, only for the young Norwegian to pick up a front-right puncture on stage 12 and drop more than three minutes after delays replacing the damaged tyre, which promoted Loix to third as a result.