Jan Kopecky made it look easy in the end, but the fog-induced limited visibility for much of the three-day event had made the 2013 SATA Rallye A?ores hard-going for everyone in the field, and only added to the Czech Republic driver's sense of satisfaction at what proved to be an emphatic win, his first on gravel.

"Of course it feels great, to win the rally is always amazing," said Kopecky. "It's our first win on gravel because in the Czech Republic we don't have any gravel rallies and I grew up on Tarmac and have only done a few rallies so it's a great weekend for us."

It means that Kopecky and navigator Pavel Dresler have a perfect record for the season so far, having won all three of the FIA European Rally Championship events that they have entered this year. It puts Kopecky on top of the drivers' championship on 115 points, 27 ahead of Peugeot's Craig Breen.

"I have to say it's good for Skoda because we have won three rallies in a row and it's a good opportunity for us to win the title," Kopecky said. "We are winning a lot of rallies and it means the car is perfect and the team is strong and everything is working well."

Breen was Kopecky's main and indeed only real challenge in the A?ores. Breen did all he could to stay in touch with the leader almost to the bitter end, but finally the Irishman was forced to settle for second place and Kopecky was able to lay to rest the ghost of a lost win here in 2010 when he had crashed out of the lead in the final stage.

"I was not thinking about the corner where I crashed, but when I passed that corner I said 'Okay, it's over' - and then we went wide on the next corner!" he laughed. "So I thought it was better not to think about these things again."

There was to be no repeat of any race-ending calamity this time, though: in fact, Kopecky positively drove a stake through that particular memory by putting in the fastest time of anyone in the final 21.33-kilometre stage of the rally. That was his seventh top stage time of the three days, and pushed his margin of victory over Breen to more than half a minute at the end of the rally.

Breen admitted that after pushing to the very limits of his ability in the morning and winning Tronqueira 1, he'd had to be more sensible in the afternoon and concentrate on safeguarding his second position to the finish in order to collect his third consecutive podium in the championship, in what was his first gravel event in the Peugeot 207.

"I tried to push very hard this morning. Nothing stupid, but for sure we were pushing," he said. clearly getting a little tired of finishing as the rummer-up all the time. "It's all very well racking up these second places, but second is getting monotonous, I want to win like you wouldn't believe."

The only other driver to finish within a minute of Kopecky was Ricardo Moura in the Skoba Fabia, who managed to get in front of Bruno Magalh?esecs during Saturday as the Peugeot driver wrestled with set-up issues. That converted what had looked to be a tight battle for third place into a walkover as the Skoda pulled out an impressive margin of more than a minute and a half.

"We were growing up in confidence with the car," said Moura, who won the coveted Colin McRae ERC Flat Out Trophy for his efforts this weekend. "At the end of the day if we could start the rally next week we could do some different times. But it's okay, it's part of the process to go step by step in a sustained way."

Overnight, Bernardo Sousa had looked set to be part of that third place playoff but that all came unravelled on a fog-hit stage 13, which also claimed the Peugeot 207 of Jean-Michel Raoux who had been up into seventh place at the end of the previous day's running. Their exits from the proceedings allowed J?r?mi Ancian to finish up in fifth place, an impressive result on his first visit to the spectacular A?ores archipelago.

Kopecky had only taken the lead for the first time midway through Day 2, after the overnight leader Robert Kubica haemorrhaged time in thick fog in the first run through stage 7 (Sete Cidades) just before lunch. Kubica then put himself out of any remaining contention for the race win by rolling his Citroen DS3 in what proved to be the final stage on Friday. After overnight repairs, Kubica did manage to rebound on what proved to be a very welcome much calmer Saturday for the former F1 driver. It allowed him to reclaim two of the positions he'd lost at the end of he previous day, and he finished in sixth place a little over nine minutes off Kopecky's unbeatable race-winning time.

"It has been a difficult weekend for us especially today on some stages when we didn't have the right pace notes because of the fog in the recce," said Kubica after the rally concluded. "But it has been a good lesson and definitely there is some experience out of this weekend.

"It's quite difficult to run at a proper pace the first time you are here on a rally," he added. "I need to learn at a good pace, not by backing off."

Kubica had more than five minutes in hand as a safety cushion over Alex Bruschetta, who was the top finisher in the ERC Production Car Cup battle. He was a minute and a half ahead of Luis Rego, who was handicapped in the closing stages by an issue with his Mitsubishi Lancer's turbo. Ninth place meant back-to-back points finishes for Antonin Tlustak and the GPD Mit Metal Racing Team, while it was a first time in the top ten for Marco Tempestini, whose Napoca Rally Academy now heads the ERC Production Car Cup for teams' classification outright having previously been tied with Team Renault Sport Technologies.

Going into the final stage, Tempestini had trailed J?nos Pusk?di, but he was able to outpace the Hungarian by 5.2s in that last run. Miguel Barbosa finished a minute and a half further back, while 13th went to Mark Wallenwein after overnight repairs to his Skoda Fabia following its Friday roll, the German champion buoyed up heading into Saturday after members of two other teams helped to fix the damage.

Zoltan Bessenyey extends his lead in the two-wheel drive category with a 14th place finish to the race, following his main rival Hannes Danzinger's retirement on stage 17 after breaking his Renault Clio's suspension hitting a wall. Diogo Gago was also forced to drop out on the final stage of the rally when his Citroen C2 R2 ground to a halt.

In all, 21 cars finished the rally. None of the drivers eligible for the ERC Ladies' Trophy completed the event: Ekaterina Stratieva had been on course for her second win in the competition but was forced to retire with one stage remaining; Molly Taylor had already stopped, while avoiding a stranded car on stage eight.

All finishers at end of Rally

1. #1 Jan Kopecky Skoda Motorsport 2hrs 26mins 32.2secs
2. #2 Craig Breen Peugeot Rally Academy + 32.2secs
3. #6 Ricardo Moura Skoda Fabia + 58.8secs
4. #8 Bruno Magalh?esecs Peugeot + 2mins 37.6secs
5. #9 J?r?mi Ancian Peugeot Rally Academy + 3mins 27.4secs
6. #4 Robert Kubica Citroen DS3 + 9mins 19.1secs
7. #25 Alex Bruschetta Napoca Rally Team + 14mins 57.4secs
8. #19 Luis Rego Mitsubishi Lancer + 16mins 36.0secs
9. #14 Antonin Tlustak GPD Mit Metal Racing Team + 17mins 42.1secs
10. #16 Marco Tempestini Napoca Rally Team + 18mins 10.6secs
11. #12 J?nos Pusk?di Eurosol Racing Team + 18mins 15.8secs
12. #18 Miguel Barbosa Mitsubishi Lancer + 19mins 50.4secs
13. #7 Mark Wallenwein Skoda Fabia + 20mins 45.1secs
14. #28 Zoltan Bessenyey Eurosol Racing Team + 25mins 47.4secs
15. #27 Luis Mota Competisport + 28mins 02.5secs
16. #31 St?phane Lefebvre Peugeot Rally Academy + 34mins 51.2secs
17. #39 Florin Tincescu Dacia Logan + 37mins 17.4secs
18. #35 Tobia Giuseppe Citroen DS3 + 37mins 54.0s
19. #43 Rafael Botelho Citroen Saxo Cup + 47mins 20.5secs
20. #42 Claudio Batista Citroen C2 + 47mins 45.2secs
21. #40 Marco Soares Citroen Saxo Cup 55mins 16.4secs



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