IRC title joy for Mikkelsen

Andreas Mikkelsen has become the youngest driver to win the Intercontinental Rally Challenge after claiming victory on the season-closing Cyprus Rally. Amid emotional scenes captured live on Eurosport, Mikkeslen secured the title by one and a half points from Jan Kopecky, sealing glory by going fastest on the final stage alongside co-driver Ola Fløene.

Japan’s Toshi Arai won the inaugural IRC Production Cup in his R4-specification Subaru Impreza STI with Jean-Michel Raoux, from France, clinching the IRC 2WD Cup by a single point ahead of Italian Stefano Albertini.

Mikkelsen, driving a ŠKODA UK Motorsport Fabia Super 2000 led for all but one stage of the mixed-surface event based in Pafos in the south-west of the Mediterranean island. One of five drivers in contention for the coveted IRC title at the start of the rally, Mikkelsen had to win the event in order to become champion.

Apart from a spin on Friday and a puncture on Saturday morning, little troubled the Norwegian who becomes the fifth different IRC champion in as many years. Mikkelsen, who switched to rallying as a 17-year-old when injury curtailed his promising skiing career, was almost forced to stop competing when he ran out of funding prior to the 2009 season.

He hit back by securing a drive with ŠKODA’s UK importer for the 2011 season after impressing in the IRC in 2010 in a privateer M-Sport Ford Fiesta. Despite a troubled start on Rallye Monte-Carlo, when he crashed on the opening stage, he slowly improved his form and came close to winning several rallies before taking his maiden win on the penultimate round in Scotland last month to set up a title challenge in Cyprus. As well as winning two rounds outright, Mikkelsen scored more stage wins than any other driver with a total of 38 fastest times during the year.

Nasser Al-Attiyah, last season’s Cyprus Rally winner, had started the final day with an outside chance of victory and went fastest of all on Saturday’s third stage. However, an engine failure meant he was unable to continue after midday service, handing second place to factory ŠKODA driver Kopecký, who has been runner-up in the IRC standings for the last three seasons.

“There was damage in the engine, which is a big disappointment,” said Al-Attiyah. “It was fantastic before and I was really so happy with my performance against all these great IRC drivers and live on Eurosport. But what can we do?”

Patrik Sandell took third with his best finish of the season for ŠKODA Sweden claiming a stage victory to boot. Estonian teenager Karl Kruuda, in a privateer Fabia, impressed in fourth, snatching the position from Freddy Loix when the Belgian’s BFO-backed Fabia developed a mechanical fault on the penultimate stage.

Matthias Kahle completed an all-Fabia top six in his ŠKODA Auto Deutschland Fabia after a solid display on his first visit to Cyprus. And it got better for the German importer when Kahle’s team-mate Mark Wallenwein battled back from his double puncture on Friday to finish eighth, one place behind IRC Production Cup winner Toshi Arai.

With IRC 2WD Cup champion Jean-Michel Raoux not eligible for overall IRC drivers’ points in ninth, ex-circuit racer Doros Loucaides clinched the four points on offer for the place in his Petrolina-backed Peugeot 207 S2000, which he was using in competition for the first time on the back of a 50-kilometre pre-event test.

Charalambos Timotheau claimed the final points in his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX after mechanical problems halted fellow Cypriot Nicos Thomas on the final afternoon.

Outgoing IRC champion Juho Hänninen restarted on day two under SupeRally regulations following his crash on Friday’s opening run. Despite winning a stage he had to settle for 16th overall, one place ahead of leading female driver Burcu Çetinkaya.

Mikkelsen’s performance earned him the Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, awarded on each round of the IRC to the driver whose performance best embodies the spirit of the rallying legend who won the Cyprus Rally 10 years ago in 2001.

Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway), ŠKODA Fabia S2000, first overall: “To become IRC champion is such a fantastic feeling, the likes of which I have never felt before. It’s been a tough season, which didn’t start so well in Monte Carlo but which has just kept getting better and better. We’ve had a fantastic second half of the year and wow, to finish with a win in Cyprus and the IRC drivers’ title, I can hardly believe it has happened. It’s like a dream.

“I’d really like to thank everyone at ŠKODA UK Motorsport and ŠKODA Motorsport for and giving me this opportunity this year. It’s a special moment for everyone. So much effort has been put in over the last five years of my rallying career, not just by me, but the people around me. To give this title back to everyone who has been involved is incredible.”

Jan Kopecký (Czech Republic), ŠKODA Fabia S2000, second overall: “I have to say this rally was quite tricky for us coming from a country with no gravel stages. We have done our best this year and not made any mistakes but finally we are second. I am disappointed but that’s it although I have to say thanks to ŠKODA for a great job all season.”

Patrik Sandell (Sweden), ŠKODA Fabia S2000, third overall: “It’s a really good way to finish what has been a tough and sometimes frustrating year. When things work well we can set top times as we have proved this weekend.”