Russia - Finish
The Intercontinental Rally Challenge's sixth round of the season has been completed at Rally Russia, headquarted in host town Vyborg near the Finnish border.
With three days and 13 stages behind them, the Skoda team can reflect on a dominant performance
in which Juho Hanninen was only beaten once on a fastest stage time throughout the course of the entire fast-paced gravel event.
"Of course, it's great for my second time here in Vyborg and my second Rally Russia victory," Hanninen said. "Of course, my goal was winning over here, but we all know how difficult this rally was."
"I did all I can to avoid the rocks. Luck also helped a bit I think," the Finn explained. "But anyway, the most important thing is that I didn't have any punctures. And it's a 1-2 for Skoda, so a great result!"
For Jan Kopecky, fighting at the wheel of the team's other Skoda Fabia S2000, the IRC drivers' title campaign has become a reality as he now slots in between the absent Peugeot camp's top drivers Kris Meeke and Freddy Loix at the top of the points table after another measured and mature performance on gravel.
"Last year, I lost second place after a puncture. So this year I told myself not to push 100%, because the risk is so high," the Czech driver said. "On a few stages I tried to push a little bit more and the times were not so bad. But Juho was very fast, like last year, and there was no way to catch him."
"This is the perfect weekend for us and now we can work towards repeating it on home ground in the Czech Republic next month," Kopecky added.
Giandomenico Basso eventually prevailed to claim third place after a rally-long battle with his Abarth teammate Anton Alen and the flying Proton of Guy Wilks.
"It's always great to grab some points after such a difficult rally," the Italian said after dealing with several issues over the three-day event.
"Yesterday, we had a water leak and that made us worry about the engine. The balance of the car was not good and we couldn't fix that.
Plus I had trouble with punctures and so we need to analyse the data, see what was missing, and use these points to boost our season," Basso declared.
Guy Wilks meanwhile recovered from a puncture which saw him drop back from third to seventh overall in the standings on Day Two, and ended the rally in fourth place despite picking up another puncture on SS13. The Proton Satria Neo S2000, still in development, displayed very good potential on its first gravel rally.
The next driver up was Franz Wittmann, celebrating his best-ever finish in the IRC with Ralliart after a time penalty for Anton Alen was announced following the final stage. The Mitsubishi driver's post-race fifth-place result is an additional bonus to what was already a fine performance for a non S2000-spec car.
"We managed to evade the many bedrocks that poke out of the gravel time and again and thus spared ourselves possible tyre damage," the Austrian said, commenting on one of the keys to his result.
For the local men there were slim pickings to be found at Rally Russia's 2009 edition. Reigning Russian champion Alesandr Zheludov retired his Peugeot 207, which had run as high as fifth on the final day. The attrition rate gave Franz Wittmann a chance to shine, taking his best-ever IRC finish for Ralliart ahead of the similar Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX of Boris Zimin.
Meanwhile Kaspar Koitla from Estonia not only gave Honda its second successive 2WD victory but also claimed a point for eighth place overall at the controls of his Civic.
The next event in Madeira will see the works Skodas sit out the IRC's second Atlantic trip of the season as they focus instead on repeating their dominance at home on the Barum Rally Zlin in six weeks' time.
The Madeiran event will therefore be an opportunity for Peugeot drivers Kris Meeke, Freddy Loix and Nicolas Vouilloz - whom did not participate in Russia - to gain back some ground in the points standings.