Bruno Magalhaes may have been in contention for victory during much of the Azores rally – but his victory was a shock nonetheless as the works Skoda team self destructed in the final loop of Sunday’s stages to hand arch rivals Peugeot a 1-2 finish.
With only three stages, the opening day was always going to be close – and Magalhaes got his victory charge off to the perfect start by winning the opening stage. Championship Juho Hanninen was looking racy however, and after winning the second stage he took the lead on the third and final test, while Andreas Mikkelsen won the final stage to tie in second place overall with Magalhaes.
The IRC takes a rather unusual approach to road order – with the Top 5 at the end of the previous day setting the order the drivers set off in. This meant 5th placed Bernardo Sousa would start first and have to sweep the loose gravel away on the unraced stages – something he was not at all happy about.
“It's going to be impossible,” said Sousa, the current Portuguese championship leader. “For a good result in the IRC now there is no chance. Now I just have to concentrate on the Portuguese championship because the stages will be so slippery for me and I will lose so much time.”
He was right. While he slipped down the leaderboard, Magalhaes took advantage to pull away out front – but Skoda was having mixed fortunes on the first Friday loop. While Jan Kopecky moved up to second, it was at the expense of team-mate Hanninen – a puncture dropping him to fourth on the opening stage of the day. Reigning champion Kris Meeke meanwhile was having an even worse time of it – a puncture on the same stage as Hanninen was followed by a spin in SS6.
However both Meeke and Hanninen made up for their morning woes with much better drives in the second set of stages – the former catching and passing Mikkelsen (despite suffering from fever) and the latter winning SS7.
While Magalhaes had pulled away during the second loop – the final three stages would prove more challenging. As both Skoda drivers were locking in an intense battle for second, it was pushing both of them closer to Magalhaes – Kopecky won the penultimate stage, but Hanninen fought back, while Magalhaes said his Peugueot 207 was suffering a handling imbalance after an emergency tyre change just before the final stage.
However Meeke’s rally got worse once again – Mikkelsen repassed the Brit for 4th place, and would have to start first on the road for the final day of the event.
It wasn’t the curse he expected it to be however – as Mikkelsen had a day to forget. He was quicker than the Norwegian on the opening stage to steal fourth, and then his Fiesta S2000 struck a cow on the second stage, forcing it to be cancelled.
Hanninen had his sights set on victory – and after the opening stage was tied for the lead with Magalhaes. However after SS15 the rally was seemingly wrapped up by Hanninen after his Portuguese rival’s Peugeot started leaking fluid. Kopecky in the other Skoda was only two seconds back in third, and it looked like the perfect result was back on for the Czech marque after all.
With a quick superspecial out of the way everyone headed to midday service, but Hanninen’s crew were rightly cautious heading into the final loop of stages.
“We have not won and we can't think we have so we have to keep at the same rhythm,” said his co-drover Mikko Markkula.
He was right. They most certainly hadn’t.
SS17 was routine enough for the Skoda and Peugeot drivers, however Sousa had big problems. He had been leading the national class, but broken suspension forced his retirement, promoting Group N leader Ricardo Moura up to 6th place.
However the dramatic two-part finale began when Hanninen picked up a puncture in the penultimate stage, while team-mate Kopecky passed Magalhaes for the lead. All out attack had backfired for the Finn – he dropped down to fourth, but he was safe from Mikkelsen behind.
Six seconds was a far from comfortable gap for Kopecky – he knew to win he would still need to attack. It was all going to plan to start with – but just 4km from the rally finish, he crashed out and retired on the spot, handing Magalhaes victory on a plate. He cruised home, a whole minute ahead of Peugeot team-mate Meeke to take the first win of his IRC career.
“It’s like a dream and I think we deserved it after the problem with our gearbox,” said Magalhaes. “We pushed from the first metre of the first stage, we led for a long time and won many stages and didn’t make any mistakes. When I saw the car of Jan Kopecky I could not believe what was happening and I drove very slowly to the finish. It’s a fantastic feeling.”
In the 2WD class Peugeot dominated, with 206s locking out the podium places. Rafael Tulio became the first driver this season to take a second class win, taking the championship lead as a result. Carlos Oliviera and Joao Faria backed were way behind in second and third places.
|1||Bruno MagalhÃ£es||Peugeot 207 S2000||02:34:00.4|
|2||Kris Meeke||Peugeot 207 S2000||+1:00.1|
|3||Juho HÃ¤nninen||Skoda Fabia S2000||+1:20.7|
|4||Andreas Mikkelsen||Ford Fiesta S2000||+4:45.6|
|5||Ricardo Moura||Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX||+5:22.0|
|6||VÃtor Pascoal||Peugeot 207 S2000||+8:58.7|
|7||Pedro Vale||Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII||+10:55.3|
|8||SÃ©rgio Silva||Subaru Impreza WRX STI||+12:54.5|
|9||Ricardo Carmo||Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX||+14:23.6|
|10||Bernardo Sousa||Ford Fiesta S2000||+15:09.8|