Azores - Finish
Peugeot UK driver Kris Meeke delivered a string of fastest stage times on the closing day of Rallye Acores, round four of the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge, to take victory and the overall championship points lead.
Over the course of seven
stages on Day Two, the 29-year-old Ulsterman, who took the lead on SS2 Friday morning, resisted a strong performance from Czech ace Jan Kopecky in his Skoda Fabia while remaining largely untroubled by his championship rivals.
In wet and blustery conditions on the island of Sao Miguel, set in the heart of the Azores achipelago some 1500km off the Portuguese coast in the Atlantic Ocean, the 37 cars to have survived the opening day's action set out westward for a gruelling final day on the extremely challenging gravel stages.
Meeke held an overnight lead of 40 seconds from defending champion Nicolas Vouilloz in a similar Peugeot 207, stretching his advantage through the first stage of the day while the Frenchman came under attack from a flying Kopecky.
Behind the three leaders, young Finnish star Anton Alen gamely carried the hopes of the Abarth squad with a fine performance in his Grande Punto in fourth place after his teammate Giandomenico Basso was forced out with suspension damage on the second stage of the day.
Alen enjoyed a day-long battle for fourth place with former WRC frontrunner Freddy Loix in another Peugeot 207, but spun on the penultimate stage and dropped 12 minutes to finish 18th after encountering a problem in getting the stuck Grande Punto going again, a situation which caused the stage to be suspended as other drivers were forced to stop and wait.
Local hero Fernando Peres powered to fifth in his Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX, ahead of the similar car of IRC regular Franz Wittmann of Austria.
The battle for the final two points positions was between Conrad Rautenbach, making his IRC debut in another Peugeot 207, and another Portuguese specialist in a Mitsubishi, Ricardo Moura. The local man managed to overhaul the Zimbabwean shortly after the service halt but Rautenbach came back to clinch seventh place on the final few stages.
In the IRC 2WD Cup, Frenchman Denis Millet took a comfortable victory in his new Peugeot 207 RC Rallye which features an innovative 1600cc turbocharged engine, from Italy's Manuel Villa in his Fiat Punto Super 1600.
The gruelling surface and ever-changing weather conditions conspired to force a total of 17 cars into retirement from the 50 starters. Principal among these was the flying Finn Juho Hanninen who led Skoda's early charge on the opening day, only to twice come to grief on the Pinhal da Paz stage, wrecking his wheel against some rocks on SS4 before suffering a bigger accident on the field's return for stage 10 on Friday.
From the rugged gravel terrain on the rocky Atlantic outposts of the Azores, the IRC moves back to public roads and its European heartland for its next destination: round five takes place at the Ypres Rally in Belgium on June 18-20.
Set amid the historic Flanders region, and headquartered in the town of Ypres, the Belgian rally fans are passionate, knowledgable and plentiful - ensuring a fabulous atmosphere for this flat-out asphalt road race, in which ever-changing Belgian weather often spices up the action and intrigue.
Kris Meeke, Peugeot UK, Rally Azores winner:
"I'm seriously thrilled about our performance here this weekend. Today particularly in the adverse weather I think my background on British rallies came into play because the conditions were really difficult, as they have been all weekend. I wasn't intentionally pushing on the stages, just holding it together. I'm delighted for Peugeot UK particularly; for us to be able to take on such good teams as Skoda and the Belgian Peugeot team, Abarth and all the others is fantastic. I've really enjoyed the rally, especially because there's so much variety. We really had a bit of everything here."
Jan Kopecky, Skoda Motorsport, second place:
"I was a bit nervous about this event before start, because loose gravel isn't my strongest kind of rally and this event is unique because the surface and the weather were changing all the time. To be competitive, set a few fastest stage times and come home with this result is great, I'm delighted and have learned a lot from it. It is also very important for Skoda because, just like in Monte Carlo, it shows that the Fabia is strong no matter what each rally has to offer as a challenge."
Nicolas Vouilloz, Peugeot Belgium-Luxemburg, third place:
"This rally must be one of most difficult on the IRC calendar so far, and I just couldn't match the kind of speed that Kris was producing this weekend. But it was very positive for us to come home to a podium finish. I feel that we did the maximum, the car was good and we protected some valuable points. I'm looking forward to Belgium now: I know we can be strong there on asphalt but so can pretty well everyone else! The fans can look forward to a big fight there I think."
Final results - IRC Rally Azores (Portugal), Round 4:
1. Meeke/Nagle Peugeot 207 S2000 2hrs 36m 48.3s
2. Kopecky/Stary Skoda Fabia S2000 +53.1s
3. Vouilloz/Klinger Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m 4.8s
4. Loix/Miclotte Peugeot 207 S2000 +2m 15.2s
5. Peres/Silva Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +4m 45.2s
6. Wittmann/Ettel Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +5m 33.2s
7. Rautenbach/Barritt Peugeot 207 S2000 +5m 35.8s
8. Moura/Eiro Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +5m 41.3s
9. Magalhaes/Magalhaes Peugeot 207 S2000 +7m03.5s
10. Sousa/Carvalho Abarth Grande Punto S2000 +8m13.8s
IRC 2WD Cup Winner: Millet/Vial, Peugeot 207 RC Rallye
1. Kris Meeke (UK) 20
2. Freddy Loix (B) 18
3. Nicolas Vouilloz (F) 14
4. Jan Kopecky (CZ) 13
5. Sebastien Ogier (F) 10
6. Giandomenico Basso (I) 10
7. Carl Tundo (EAK) 10
8. Alistair Cavenagh (GB) 8
9. Lee Rose (EAK) 6
10. Stephane Sarrazin (F) 6
1. Peugeot 52
2. Ralliart 33
3. Abarth 14
4. Skoda 13