Juho Hanninen has become the most successful driver in the history of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in his own right after winning the Prime Yalta Rally in Ukraine on Saturday.

Driving a Skoda Motorsport Fabia Super 2000, the Finn's triumph moves him ahead of Freddy Loix with seven wins having previously been tied with the Belgian on six. Hanninen's maximum score also puts him back on top of the IRC drivers' standings with Skoda edging ahead of Peugeot in the race for the prestigious IRC manufacturers' award.

Hanninen started Saturday's final six stages leading Peugeot's Bryan Bouffier by 8.2s. He appeared to have gained the edge over his rival by going quicker than the Frenchman through stage nine only for Bouffier to hit back on the next two runs to the extent they were separated by 5.1s at the midmorning service halt beside Yalta's spectacular waterfront.

However, a charging display by Hanninen on stage 12 allowed him to eek out a comfortable margin. Although Bouffier went fastest of all on the final stage, it wasn't enough to prevent Hanninen from claiming his second win of the season alongside co-driver Mikko Markkula.

"It's been a good weekend with no punctures and no mistakes. The car was working thanks to the team, really there were no dramas," said Hanninen. "I was trying to stay on the tarmac and avoid the punctures. I might not have always given maximum on the stages because of this but I knew it would be a long rally. I used my brains this weekend."

Bouffier's capture of second meanwhile was the perfect response to his final-stage crash on the previous round in Corsica and fires the Peugeot France 207 driver back into title contention.

"It feels very good to score big points and I really need a lot of points if I am to hope to get the title at the end of the year," noted the Frenchman. "It was not a perfect weekend for tyre compound choice but the car was perfect."

Jan Kopecky was next up and said a lack of confidence through stage 11 had allowed Andreas Mikkelsen to threaten his tenure of third place. Successive stage wins by the Czech ace in the afternoon though cancelled out any threat the Norwegian could offer.

"Of course Andreas made a really nice fight and was pushing a lot because he wanted to finish third. Yesterday I went off the road and had problems with the car, losing many seconds. But finally I am on the podium so I am happy today. The car was completely perfect," Kopecky reflected.

Mikkelsen was fastest on two stages on Saturday morning in his efforts to snatch the final podium spot from Kopecky. He closed to within 12.9s of the Czech with three stages left only to spin backwards into a small tree after touching a patch of gravel on stage 12. The impact inflicted damage to the exhaust and right-rear corner of his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia, which he and co-driver Ola Floene repaired by attaching a ratchet strap to a lamppost to pull some flailing bodywork clear of the exhaust.

The time dropped spinning plus the loss of power caused by the damaged exhaust forced Mikkelsen to settle for fourth, which nevertheless represents his highest finish in the IRC so far this season. He also took the Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy.

Further back Guy Wilks began the final day in an unenviable position. Too far behind to attack Mikkelsen following his punctures on day two and clear of the chasing pack, the Peugeot UK driver faced the difficult prospect of finding a comfortable balance between pace and caution.

He finished fifth but suggested he could have challenged for victory had it not been for the two deflations, having run as high as second. A front-right puncture on the final stage, caused by striking the concrete block holding the flying finish sign in place, completed a frustrating weekend for the Briton.

Thierry Neuville arrived in Ukraine boosted by his maiden IRC victory on the previous round in Corsica. While a high-speed off and a puncture on Friday ultimately wrecked his chances of a repeat win, he showed plenty of pace throughout the event ahead of his home round of the IRC, the Geko Ypres Rally from 23-25 June.

Skoda Fabia privateer Toni Gardemeister overcame a down-on-power engine to finish seventh for his TGS Worldwide team. The Finn had dropped a few seconds with an overshoot and stall on stage 11.

Karl Kruuda took a creditable eighth place on his first appearance in the IRC in a four-wheel drive car. The 18-year-old from Estonia suffered a puncture on Saturday's opening stage and reported his pacenotes needed to be revised to allow him to go faster on future events.

Patrik Sandell managed to avoid any of the punctures that played havoc on Friday to recover to ninth overall in his Skoda Sweden-backed entry.

With IRC 2WD Cup aces Jean-Michel Raoux and Vlad Cosma not eligible for overall IRC drivers' points, Hungarian Janos Puskadi claimed the final point in his Honda Civic Type R in 12th overall. Ralliart Mitsubishi driver Volodymyr Pechenyk took the IRC Production Cup honours on his home event (and 13th overall).

Giandomenico Basso, who was fifth after four stages, reached Friday night's service in 10th overall but didn't restart on Saturday owing to concerns that damage to his PROTON Motorsports' Satria Neo S2000's engine on day two could prove terminal if he continued. Team-mate PG Andersson stopped with oil pressure issues on Friday.

The 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge now continues later on this month with the Geko Ypres Rally in Belgium, which runs from 23-25 June.

Prime Yalta Rally - Top ten IRC positions (after day three):

1. Juho Hanninen/Mikko Markkula Skoda Fabia S2000 2h27m06.6s
2. Bryan Bouffier/Xavier Panseri Peugeot 207 S2000 +11.7s
3. Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary Skoda Fabia S2000 +38.7s
4. Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene Skoda Fabia S2000 +57.3s
5. Guy Wilks/Phil Pugh Peugeot 207 S2000 +4m00.4s
6. Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul Peugeot 207 S2000 +5m01.5s
7. Toni Gardemeister/Tapio Suominen Skoda Fabia S2000 +7m59.3s
8. Karl Kruuda/Martin Jarveoja Skoda Fabia S2000 +10m01.3s
9. Patrik Sandell/Staffan Parmander Skoda Fabia S2000 +18m08.9s
10. Janos Puskadi/Barna Godor Honda Civic Type R +29m58.0s

IRC Production Cup: Volodymyr Pechenyk/Andriy Yankovskiy (Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X)IRC 2WD Cup: Jean-Michel Raoux/Laurent Magat (Renault Clio R3)

IRC Drivers' standings (after round 4 of 12) - Top 10:

1. Juho Hanninen 58pts
2. Jan Kopecky 55pts
3. Bryan Bouffier 49pts
4. Thierry Neuville 48pts
5. Freddy Loix 45pts
6. Guy Wilks 35pts
7. Andreas Mikkelsen 28pts
8. Bruno Magalhaes 14pts
9. Pierre Campana 12pts
= Toni Gardemeister 12pts
= Stephane Sarrazin 12pts

Manufacturers' standings (after round 4 of 12):

1. Skoda 146pts
2. Peugeot 134pts
3. Subaru 33pts
4. Honda 28pts
5. M-Sport 27pts
6. PROTON 16pts
= Ralliart 16pts
8. Abarth 4pts



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