Juho Hanninen has made it three wins from four starts in the 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) to move back into the lead of the all-action series, following a dramatic victory on this weekend's Sata Rallye Acores.

Driving a Skoda Motorsport Fabia Super 2000, the defending IRC Champion was embroiled in a close battle with rising star Andreas Mikkelsen starting the final day of the gravel event, but a courageous run through Saturday's second stage handed him a slender advantage over the Norwegian that he maintained to the finish.

A hat-trick of stage wins on Friday afternoon had propelled Mikkelsen to within 1.3 seconds of Hanninen heading into day three, and the fight for glory took another dramatic twist when Mikkelsen went faster than Hanninen on Saturday's opening run to snatch the lead by 2.7 seconds, despite bashing his Fabia's left-rear wheel on an earth bank in thick fog.

With fog still proving a nuisance on stage 14, Mikkelsen admitted that he was too cautious through the run and slipped back as Hanninen threw caution to the wind to regain the lead with a blistering drive. Mikkelsen won the Grupo Marques super-special to narrow the Finn's margin to 10.9 seconds with two stages remaining, when a decision was made for both drivers to hold station to ensure a dominant finish for the Czech manufacturer, which now heads Peugeot in the makes' standings by 48 points.

The result also means that Hanninen - who has won more IRC rounds than any other driver with eight victories - secured the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat-Out Trophy, which is presented on all rounds of the IRC to the driver best embodying the spirit of the Scottish rallying legend.

"It's been a good weekend and big thanks to the team," the winner enthused afterwards. "We had three Skodas on the podium, so that's a great result. We had a good fight with Andreas, especially [on Friday], and this victory feels very good."

Although he ultimately had to settle for the runner-up spoils, 22-year-old Mikkelsen can take plenty of positives from his mature performance in the Azores after he recorded a total of six stage wins and his first podium since the RACMSA Rally of Scotland last season.

"Second place is very good for the whole team, who did a fantastic job all weekend," he affirmed. "Juho has been incredibly quick, and there was nothing we could do about that. Maybe next time..."

Bruno Magalhaes, the winner in the Azores in 2010, was in third place at the start of day three when the rear differential support on his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 broke, forcing the 31-year-old's retirement following Saturday's first stage.

"The support was almost on the ground and there was nothing we could do," he rued. "One more time it is bad luck when we are fighting for the podium. I'm very disappointed."

Magalhaes' misfortune enabled Jan Kopecky to claim a comfortable third position despite the onset of a power steering problem on Saturday morning, which proved a particular hindrance to the Czech driver on the very narrow and twisty stage 14. With a clear margin over Bryan Bouffier in fourth, however, the mechanical failure went unpunished and Kopecky duly sealed his fourth rostrum finish of the 2011 campaign.

"It was a pity for Bruno," he reflected, "because we were having a nice battle for third and the feeling is always better when you have a nice battle - but I am happy to be third on my first gravel rally for one year."

Bouffier was the highest-placed event newcomer at the wheel of his Peugeot France 207. The Rallye Monte-Carlo winner ran first-on-the-road on the final day, and his capture of fourth overall means he remains firmly in contention for the IRC drivers' crown.

Patrik Sandell said he lacked the confidence to attack on Saturday's fog-hit opening stage, and he adopted a cautious approach to finish fifth in his Skoda Sweden-entered Fabia - his best result in the IRC to date. He rounded out a solid performance by winning the last stage.

Ricardo Moura dominated the IRC Production Cup category in his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer, winding up sixth overall in the process. Little troubled the local hero, who resisted the temptation to try to replicate the fifth place he had achieved in the Azores in 2010 in favour of securing maximum points in the Azorean and Portuguese championships. Vitor Lopes finished seventh in a Subaru Impreza, with Vitor Pascoal eighth at the wheel of another Lancer.

Behind Sergio Silva in ninth, Yokohama-backed Fumio Nutahara claimed his maiden IRC drivers' championship point on his first appearance in Subaru's R4-specification Impreza. The Japanese ace thought his challenge was over when his car's engine cut following a water splash on stage 14, but he fought back to clinch tenth overall.

Jean-Michel Raoux extended his lead in the IRC 2WD Cup by finishing an impressive second-in-class to Paulo Maciel. Defending champion Harry Hunt's challenge ended on Saturday's opening stage when he got beached on an earth bank.

After retiring when he broke his suspension nudging an earth bank on Friday morning, Guy Wilks elected not to re-start on Saturday under SupeRally regulations in his Peugeot UK 207. Nutahara's Subaru team-mate Toshi Arai did re-start under SupeRally following his exit on Friday with an electrical fault, but he suffered a further delay when he had to stop to change a tyre on stage 14.

Sata Rallye Acores - Top ten IRC positions (after day three):

1. Juho Hanninen/Mikko Markkula Skoda Fabia S2000 1h07m45.8s
2. Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene Skoda Fabia S2000 +42.3s
3. Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m46.0s
4. Bryan Bouffier/Xavier Panseri Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m36.2s
5. Patrik Sandell/Staffan Parmander Skoda Fabia S2000 +4m33.3s
6. Ricardo Moura/ Sandro Eiro Ralliart Lancer Evolution IX +6m07.0s
7. Vitor Lopes/Hugo Magalhaes Subaru Impreza STI WRX +9m52.1s
8. Vitor Pascoal/Luis Ramalho Ralliart Lancer Evolution X +12m47.3s
9. Sergio Silva/Nelson Cordeiro Subaru Impreza STI WRX +14m00.3s
10. Fumio Nutahara/Hakaru Ichino Subaru Impreza R4 +18m10.8s

IRC Production Cup: Ricardo Moura/Sandro Eiro (Ralliart Lancer Evolution IX)IRC 2WD Cup: Paulo Maciel/Filipe Gouveira (Citroen Saxo VTS)

IRC Drivers' standings (after round 6 of 11) - Top 10:

1. Juho Hanninen 83pts
2. Bryan Bouffier 79pts
3. Jan Kopecky 70pts
= Freddy Loix 70pts
5. Thierry Neuville 48pts
6. Andreas Mikkelsen 46pts
7. Guy Wilks 45pts
8. Toni Gardemeister 18pts
9. Hans Weijs 15pts
10. Bruno Magalhaes 14pts
= Patrik Sandell 14pts

Manufacturers' standings (after round 6 of 11):

1. Skoda 229pts
2. Peugeot 181pts
3. Subaru 49pts
4. M-Sport 45pts
5. Ralliart 42pts
6. Honda 28pts
7. PROTON 17pts
8. Abarth 12pts



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