Thierry Neuville won Rallye Sanremo following a thrilling finish to the Intercontinental Rally Challenge round on the Italian Riviera on Saturday afternoon.
Driving a Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 Super 2000, Neuville surged ahead on the demanding asphalt event with one stage remaining, having cancelled out an overnight deficit of 16.6s.
By going fastest on the final test, Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul did just enough to beat Skoda UK Motorsport pair Andreas Mikkelsen and Ola Floene for their second IRC victory of 2011 and ensure Peugeot's capture of the IRC's trio of classic events, Rallye Monte-Carlo, Tour de Corse and now Rallye Sanremo.
"I was flat out on that last stage, it was incredible and I can't believe the result," Neuville reflected. "I pushed really hard, it was such a nice battle over the weekend, so intensive because the IRC is such a competitive championship. The car felt good, I am so happy. I hope this win won't be the last for me."
It was the fourth time in 2011 that a round of the all-action IRC has been decided by a margin of less than two seconds following close finishes in Canary Islands, Czech Republic and Hungary earlier in the year. Neuville's success has also underlined the pace of Peugeot's 207 Super 2000, which has led the way on the demanding narrow and twisty roads in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for a third year in succession.
Freddy Loix had started the second day of the rally leading by 2.7s having moved ahead of Mikkelsen after winning Friday's night stage in his BFO-Skoda Rally Team Fabia. Mikkelsen, who had led from the opening stage on Friday, reclaimed top spot on Saturday's first test when Loix made his characteristic slow start.
Mikkelsen remained in front until Loix retook the lead after going fastest two stages later. He started stage 11 a mere 2.5s in front only to crash on a fast downhill section approximately halfway through the test, fortunately without injury to neither he nor co-driver Frederic Miclotte. With his car blocking the narrow road, organisers were forced to cancel the stage.
Neuville, 23, won the penultimate run, one of four stage wins during the final day, to start the final test 0.3s ahead of Mikkelsen. Despite a determined charge, the 22-year-old Norwegian was unable to land his maiden IRC victory, having led for much of the event.
"I was right on the limit, we tried but it wasn't enough," Mikkelsen said. "But I have to be happy with this result because I certainly did expect to be fighting with Freddy, Thierry and Bryan before the start."
Loix, whose efforts earned him the prestigious Coilin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, could have moved to the top of the IRC standings if he'd claimed maximum points and rival Jan Kopecky remained in fifth place, having been unable to replicate the pace that has carried him to back-to-back victories in Czech Republic and Hungary. As it is, by inheriting fourth, Kopecky's comfortable lead remains intact heading to the penultimate round in Scotland next month.
Bryan Bouffier took the final place on the podium and he was disappointed not to have been able to battle for the win.
"This is not the best result for me because I would have preferred to have fought for the victory," he confirmed. "But it's a good result for Peugeot with two cars on the podium. Thierry did the perfect race."
Bruno Magalhaes meanwhile rounded out his 2011 IRC campaign with a strong fifth place for Peugeot Sport Portugal. Aside from a handful of set-up issues and a lack of brakes on Friday's night stage little troubled the multiple Portuguese champion, who set a number of competitive times in his 207.
M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 driver Umberto Scandola began day two as the leading Italian but a steering problem on stage 10 dropped him to seventh overall behind countryman Alessandro Perico in a privateer Peugeot.
Pierre Campana's bid to emulate the fourth-place finish he recorded on Tour de Corse-E.Leclerc was hampered by a plethora of mechanical problems, which required the fitting of a new loom and injection rack at midday service. He took eighth.
Toni Gardemeister extended his point-scoring run in this year's IRC to eight events after the Finn brought his TGS Worldwide Fabia home in ninth position. It was the first time he'd finished Rallye Sanremo in five attempts.
Factory Proton driver Giandomenico Basso had been in the fight for a top finish but a spin on stage five and an off-road moment on the night stage when his intercom failed and he couldn't hear the instructions of his co-driver Mitia Dotta, dropped him out of contention. Alternator problems on Saturday morning caused further frustration but he fought back to deny Swiss Peugeot privateer Gregoire Hotz the final point on the very last stage.
Peugeot UK's Guy Wilks crashed out on Friday's first test. Australian Chris Atkinson also failed to complete the opening run when his Proton Motorsports' Satria Neo stopped with a suspected electrical failure. Karl Kruuda retired on Friday's night stage when a loss of brakes resulted in him sliding into a wall and breaking his Fabia's front-right wheel.
In the IRC Production Cup Florian Gonon claimed his third victory after heading home Italian Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer driver Marco Cavigioli by a comfortable margin. Gonon, driving a Subaru Impreza, was fastest in the category on all but one stage. Irishman Eamonn Boland was third with Corrado Perino fourth. Johan Heloise failed to finish.
In the IRC 2WD Cup class Davide Medici secured his maiden win after seeing off the challenge of fellow Italian Stefano Albertini, who last ground with set-up issues on the final day. Pierre-Antoine Guglielmi, the winner of the IRC 2WD Cup in Corsica earlier this season, finished third with Roberto Vescovi taking fourth.
Honda's challenge unravelled when Sandro Sottile crashed on stage four and Martin Kangur retired following a spate of mechanical problems on Friday's final three stages. Harry Hunt, the defending IRC 2WD Cup champion, battled back from a tough opening day to claim ninth with Elwis Chentre 10th in a SKODA Fabia R2. Michele Tassone was the leading Abarth finisher in 16th.
The 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge now continues in a few weeks time with the RACMSA Rally of Scotland, which runs from 7-9 October.
Rallye Sanremo - Top ten IRC positions (after day two):
1. Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul Peugeot 207 S2000 2h19m57.8s
2. Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fl?ene ?KODA Fabia S2000 +1.5s
3. Bryan Bouffier/Xavier Panseri Peugeot 207 S2000 +16.0s
4. Jan Kopecky?/Petr Star? ?KODA Fabia S2000 +1m09.1s
5. Bruno Magalh?es/Paulo Grave Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m26.0s
6. Alessandro Perico/Fabrizio Carrara Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m47.8s
7. Umberto Scandola/Guido D'Amore M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 +4m05.9s
8. Pierre Campana/Sabrina de Castelli Peugeot 207 S2000 +4m28.0s
9. Toni Gardemeister/Tapio Suominen ?KODA Fabia S2000 +5m24.1s
10. Giandomenico Basso/Mitia Dotta PROTON Satria Neo S2000 +7m26.9s
IRC Production Cup: Florian Gonon/Sandra Arlettaz (Subaru Impreza WRX)IRC 2WD Cup: Davide Medici/Daniele De Luis (Renault Clio S1600)
IRC Drivers' standings (after round 9 of 11) - Top 10:*
1. Jan Kopecky 128pts
2. Freddy Loix 103pts
=Thierry Neuville 103pts
4. Juho Hanninen 98pts
5. Bryan Bouffier 88pts
6. Andreas Mikkelsen 74pts
7. Guy Wilks 47pts
8. Toni Gardemeister 35pts
9. Bruno Magalhaes 26pts
10. Hans Weijs 18pts etc
* denotes best seven scores count
Manufacturers' standings (after round 9 of 11):
1. Skoda 285pts
2. Peugeot 223pts
3. M-Sport 80pts
4. Ralliart 73pts
5. Subaru 66pts
6. Proton 41pts
7. Honda 31pts
8. Abarth 15pts