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.

"Juho and Jan were, in the end, too fast but we tried to follow, enjoyed it and learned a lot," Neuville admitted, "Sometimes I was never sure if I could go on the same the pace but now I am sure. I only need some more tests with the car and then it will be perfect. This is really good for the future."

Loix was the highest-placed Canarias rookie in fourth. The BFO Skoda driver was in the fight for victory until he lost time on Friday's final test when his Fabia's side windows misted up and restricted his vision.

Guy Wilks was one of four drivers to hold the lead of the rally but dropped out of contention with a slow time through stage two on Friday, which he said was caused by a lack of confidence in the set-up of his Peugeot UK 207. He started Saturday in seventh after a spin on Friday'final stage but fought back up to fifth with a series of impressive times.

Andreas Mikkelsen started the event under orders from his Skoda UK Motorsport team to reach the finish following his crash on the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo. Although his approach masked his outright speed, he was nevertheless satisfied to have achieved his pre-rally aim. Finishing sixth overall he received a further boost
when he was able to fend off Rallye Monte-Carlo winner Bryan Bouffier after a close battle.

Bouffier, who started the event at the top of the IRC drivers' standings, was never 100 per cent confident with the handling of his Peugeot France 207 and his lack of knowledge of the island's demanding and abrasive stages held him back. However, his haul of six points means he remains firmly in contention for the IRC drivers' title.

Bruno Magalhaes also lacked confidence at the wheel of his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207, a legacy of the high-speed crash he suffered on Rallye Monte-Carlo. However, the IRC event winner reached the finish in a solid eighth overall.

Giandomencio Basso bagged PROTON's first points of the season in ninth overall on his debut with the Malaysian squad. Toni Gardemeister, making his debut for his own TGS Worldwide team, claimed the final point in his Skoda, which he was using in competition for the first time.

PG Andersson dropped out of contention in the second PROTON when he suffered two punctures in the same stage on Friday. He soldiered to the finish in 16th overall, scoring more manufacturer points for his employer.

Joan Vinyes won the IRC 2WD Cup following a dominant display over Suzuki team-mate Gorka Antxustegi. Angel Marrero was third to bag top IRC 2WD Cup manufacturer points for Honda. Defending IRC 2WD Cup champion Harry Hunt recovered to sixth after being delayed by a fuel pump fault and a puncture. He finished one place ahead of former IRC drivers' champion Enrique Garcia Ojeda in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta R2.

Canary Islander Jose Barrios claimed IRC Production Cup success in his Subaru Impreza after Gustavo Sosa retired his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer.



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