By winning the 51st Rallye Sanremo today Kris Meeke became the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion, clinching the title at the wheel of his Peugeot UK machine on the series' penultimate round while the remaining top four positions of the race proved impossible to predict.
began yesterday as an intense and close battle between title rivals Meeke and the Skoda team's Jan Kopecky quickly transformed into a concentrated effort from the Irishman when his Czech rival retired on SS2.
From that point on, Meeke was on a mission to take points, a mission which became victory at the conclusion of this classic Italian rally. He finished the event with a 15.7-second advantage, and more importantly, an insurmountable 11-point lead in the IRC drivers' standings with one round remaining.
Luca Rossetti was at the top of the Sanremo rankings this morning but lost the lead to Meeke during the second stage. The Abarth driver could not keep pace with his rally rival and settled into second position overall, a position the Italian saved by only 0.8sec on the final run.
Racing aboard a Peugeot 207, Renato Travaglia exchanged third place with Nicolas Vouilloz but managed to fight back and reclaim it on the final stage by a mere 0.4sec, thereby keeping the 2008 IRC champion at bay and becoming one of two Italian countrymen to celebrate a podium finish at home. Travaglia also had the honour of winning the final stage of Rally Sanremo's 2009 edition, as well as beating Italian Rally Championship rival Paolo Andreucci in the points. *
Vouilloz did his best for the Peugeot Belgium-Luxemburg team and gave Travaglia a good fight during the closing stages upon the twisting mountain roads of the Italian Riviera, but fourth place in the final standings was the reward. The Frenchman passed the laurels to Meeke today, and can no longer be called the 'reigning champion.' Teammate Freddy Loix came next to take the overall fifth spot 2.9sec behind.
Paolo Andreucci held the lead for most of last evening's night-time runs before Rossetti took over from him this morning. His Peugeot ended in sixth place, ahead of BFGoodrich Drivers Team nominee Luca Cantamessa who finished nearly a minute and half away from the frontrunners. *
It was not the best of weekends for the Skoda camp: Jan Kopecky's crash and retirement was the definite blow to his championship chances, while gravel expert Juho Hanninen struggled on the asphalt roads. Hanninen completed the rally in eighth position, ahead of another Skoda driven by Piero Longhi.
Kris Meeke, winner of both the rally and the IRC title after a determined effort to move up the standings - and after overcoming serious brake problems twice - is the star of the day. His rally victory in Italy follows those taken in Brazil, the Azores and Belgium.
Peugeot won the 2009 IRC manufacturers' championship on the previous round in Spain, and now a Peugeot driver has taken this year's drivers' crown in Italy. Perfect outcome for the French carmaker.
Another Peugeot driver leaves Italy very satisfied: Denis Millet's points score makes him the IRC 2WD Cup champion.
The Intercontinental Rally Challenge now takes a nearly two month-long break, returning with its final round at the Rally of Scotland (November 19-21).
* Travaglia received a 30-second post-race penalty for arriving late at the final checkpoint. The sanction moved Vouilloz back into third place and onto the podium, with Loix and Andreucci also gaining a position while Travaglia fell to sixth.