Skoda Motorsport's Czech star Jan Kopecky took victory with a measured performance on the Rally Principe de Asturias, his second consecutive win on the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge trail.
In a fast and furious two days on the roads around host city Oviedo, Kopecky
maintained a consistent pace while other leading contenders endured drama upon drama to claim a hugely popular win and close to within one point of championship leader Kris Meeke.
Peugeot UK ace Meeke suffered a puncture on the first day which, in a hugely competitive field, plunged him down to 16th place overall. Despite fighting back into the points positions, it took similar misfortunes to befall several rivals to get him back into contention.
Finally, Peugeot Benelux driver and defending IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz incurred a voluntary time penalty after the final stage – the move allowing fellow Peugeot camp Meeke through to claim second place and thereby retain his series lead by a single point.
Vouilloz, one of the star performers of the rally, won six of the 15 stages across the two days of the event, but was another driver whose push for victory was blunted by a puncture. Similarly afflicted was the home town hero Alberto Hevia, returning to top-flight competition after an enforced break through lack of funds, who led the opening stages of the event at the wheel of his privately-entered Skoda Fabia S2000.
There was disappointment for Abarth on the IRC's Spanish outing. Local man Miguel Fuster, drafted in to the squad for this event, crashed out on SS4 while the first day of action in the field was led by the Grande Punto of team leader Giandomenico Basso.
Basso, who won the event in 2008, held a commanding lead until SS12 when he spun off the road and his reverse gear failed. With no spectators in that section of the stage to help him, the Italian dropped out of contention and surrendered any mathematical chance of a shot at the IRC title.
Thus the championship battle rests between Meeke and Kopecky, who head towards the final two events separated by just one point.
On the basis of their performances this weekend, it would in fact be Kopecky leading the way towards the Rally Sanremo later this month, as Meeke finished the final stage in Asturias in third place on the road. However Kopecky's one-point advantage was short-lived as Vouilloz's post-race penalty reversed the matter back to Meeke.
Second-place driver Vouilloz was hit with a time penalty for leaving the final service after his allotted time; Meeke was elevated to the runner-up position, claiming two extra points with the result that he keeps his place at the top of the points table.
"He is the best-placed Peugeot driver to succeed me in the IRC drivers' standings," explained Vouilloz. "I did not want to see him lose two points which could be decisive at year's end."
"At the start of Day Two we were in seventh and, with everyone running at the same pace, it looked like that would be the maximum we could score," Meeke said. "But today's been incredible – so many of the guys have had the same sort of problem that we had and in the end we've come through."
Rally winner Kopecky clearly took all the goings-on in his stride, and counted his blessings not to have suffered any of the incidents that befell so many of his rivals.
"Winning last time on the Barum Czech Rally Zlin was important because it was my home event, but winning here on my first visit is just as special," he said.
"I always planned to take it steady on this event, to get to the finish without a problem, because it's really hard to make the time back if you get a puncture or anything. We didn't make any mistakes and that's got a lot to do with the quality of the pacenotes," Kopecky pointed out.
The next Intercontinental Rally Challenge will take place from September 24-26 at Italy's renowned Rally Sanremo.
RALLY PRINCIPE DE ASTURIAS: FINAL RESULTS
1. Jan Kopecky (CZ) Skoda Fabia S2000 2hrs 41m 51.3s
2. Kris Meeke (UK) Peugeot 207 S2000 +2m 46.9s
3. Nicolas Vouilloz (F) Peugeot 207 S2000 +2m 49.5s*
4. Freddy Loix (B) Peugeot 207 S2000 +2m 58.9s
5. Corrado Fontana (I) Peugeot 207 S2000 +3m 45.0s
6. Alberto Hevia (E) Skoda Fabia S2000 +4m 27.2s
7. Michal Solowow (PL) Peugeot 207 S2000 +5m 58.0s
8. Giandomenico Basso (I) Abarth Grande Punto S2000 +7m 3.8s
* Includes 40sec time penalty
IRC drivers' standings after round 9 of 11:
1. K. Meeke 50 points
2. J. Kopecky 49
3. F. Loix 32
4. G. Basso 28
5. N. Vouilloz 25
6. J. Hanninen 20
IRC manufacturers' standings after round 9 of 11:
1. Peugeot 109 points*
2. Skoda 72
3. Ralliart 42
4. Abarth 34
5. Proton 5
6. Honda 1
* Peugeot is the 2009 manufacturers' champion