Juho Hanninen made history today when he became the first driver to win the Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally to count as a round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
In doing so, the Skoda Motorsport ace clinched his ninth victory in the series and his first IRC triumph of 2012. He also follows in the wheel tracks of his fellow Finn Pentti Airikkala as only the second overseas winner of the asphalt event.
Hanninen, who is co-driven by Mikko Markkula, started day two locked in a close fight with Skoda UK's defending IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen. They traded stage times – and positions – throughout the day and began the final loop of four stages with Hanninen leading by 2.3s.
Pushing to close the gap to Hanninen, Mikkelsen got caught out in rain on the Lisburn town centre stage and slid into a hay bale. He inflicted damage to the side of his Fabia S2000, but also banged his head and was left dazed, ending his hopes of his first victory on tarmac in the IRC for the second event in succession. He was able to recover to the runner-up spot, more than 40s behind Hanninen.
Speaking at the finish in Armagh on Saturday evening, Hanninen, who becomes the third different winner in as many rounds in this year's IRC, said: “It was one of my toughest victories but also one of my most enjoyable because all the time I was fighting, fighting with Andreas. We had to push on every stage but in the end it was he who was unlucky and not me because I think it was about luck on this rally because the changing weather conditions were very difficult and it was easy to get caught out.”
Mikkelsen had fought back into contention following an overshoot on stage eight only to hit trouble on the first run through the Lisburn test. He said: “It's disappointing because it was a great fight and this is a rally I wanted to win. But we have made a good start to the season by leading the IRC championship with one win and two second places, so for this reason we have to be happy.”
Having worked his way into a secure third position, Jan Kopecky spent day two consolidating the final podium spot in the second factory Fabia to ensure a one-two-three finish for Skoda, which extends its lead of the IRC manufacturers' standings. The Czech, who won the previous round in Gran Canaria, was fastest on the Titanic Super Special Stage in Belfast on Friday but was unable to replicate that form thereafter. His task wasn't helped when co-driver Pavel Dresler fell ill.
Mathieu Arzeno shone on his first appearance in Northern Ireland by guiding his Sainteloc Peugeot 207 Super 2000 to the finish in fourth position. “I was here to learn and to take the experience,” said the French driver. “It was not an easy rally to come to for the first time but I'm happy with my performance.”
Craig Breen won the battle to be the top Irish finisher by overhauling Robert Barrable for fifth position on stage 11. Breen was competing in a Sainteloc Peugeot for the first time and spent much of Saturday experimenting with different set-ups having dropped out of contention when he picked up 1m30s in road penalties following a fuel pump glitch on Friday evening.