Skoda driver Jan Kopecky has taken his second consecutive victory on the Jannerrallye in Austria, round one of the new-look European Rally Championship by just half a second after a dramatic final day - with the winner only decided on the very last stage.
Kopecky started Saturday's eight stages with a 20-second advantage over the Peugeot of Bryan Bouffier. But heavy rain and some ice made Saturday's route around Freistadt extremely tricky, and the Czech driver concentrated on just getting to the finish in front of 120,000 spectators.
His fortunes were turned on their head when he picked up a front-left puncture around seven kilometres from the finish of stage 15, which dropped him to third with only three stages to go. Bouffier, competing on his first Jannerrallye, took the lead despite spinning on the same stage.
However, Kopecky was determined not to give up, and pushed as hard as he could to start the final 25-kilometre stage 10.6 seconds adrift of Bouffier. He emerged from it with a winning margin of 11.1 seconds, ensuring that he scraped to victory by just half a second in heavy rain and fog in his Michelin-shod Fabia Super 2000.
“I never stopped believing I could win because if you stop believing you cannot achieve anything,” said Kopecky at the finish after the epic day-long battle. “I was still believing and still hoping. Thanks to Bryan for an incredible battle and to the team for a great car. Pavel [Dresler], my co-driver, also did a great job so thanks to him.”
Bouffier settled for second, a result he hadn't anticipated heading into the Austrian event, given his lack of experience of the undulating stages. “The conditions on this event were really tricky, some of the most demanding that I have ever seen,” said Bouffier, who scored seven bonus points for topping leg two.
For much of the rally Bouffier battled with local hero Raimund Baumschlager, a 10-time Austrian champion. After a big moment in his self-run Fabia on the opening stage of the day that nearly put him out, the 53-year-old decided that discretion was the better part of valour in the treacherous conditions. He then concentrated on scoring points for his domestic championship.
Czech driver Vaclav Pech - a former winner of the Jannerrallye - was fourth in a turbocharged MINI John Cooper Works S2000, having consistently fought at the front and even won a stage on the opening day.
Austria's Beppo Harrach was another stage winner and finished fifth in his Mitsubishi Lancer, clinching the ERC Production Car Cup and the Colin McRae Flat Out Trophy for his battling performance following extensive delays with a misting windscreen on Friday night's stages. He beat former Polish champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz in a Subaru by 1.1s. Kajetanowicz was making his Jannerrallye debut and starred with an outright stage victory.