Kopecký wins Zlín thriller
Czech hero heads SKODA podium lockout in closest IRC finish ever
Jan Kopecký has claimed his first victory in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge for more than a year after triumphing on a thrilling Barum Czech Rally Zlín. The ŠKODA Motorsport ace, roared on by approximately 300,000 home fans, beat Freddy Loix by 1.2s, the closest finish in the history of the IRC. Team-mate Juho Hänninen took third to make it a ŠKODA podium lockout.
Kopecky started the final stage with a two-second margin over Loix. Despite the BFO-SKODA driver going fastest through the closing test, Kopecky was able to hold on to first place and trim Hanninen’s title lead to three points with four IRC rounds remaining.
Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg’s Thierry Neuville was the leading Peugeot 207 driver in fourth after Bryan Bouffier crashed his Peugeot France entry on Sunday’s opening stage. However, Neuville faced strong opposition from SKODA UK Motorsport’s Andreas Mikkelsen, who slashed his margin to 6.1s with a succession of stage wins.
Kopecky, whose last win in the IRC was on Rally Islas Canarias El Corte Ingles in May 2010, thought his hopes of victory were over when his car’s powersteering faltered on Sunday’s first stage, which resulted in his overnight lead of 19.7s being slashed to 5.6s. Although he and co-driver Petr Stary were able to fashion makeshift repairs by using a spare pipe to bypass the oil cooler to the powersteering pump, they were unable to prevent the advancing Loix from closing to within one second at the midday service halt in Otrokovice.
In a tense finish, Kopecky held his nerve to win and banish the memories of 2010 when he crashed out of the lead of his home event on the final day. His efforts earned him the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, awarded to the driver whose performance best embodies the spirit of the rallying legend.
Hanninen began the final day equal on time with Loix in second but dropped out of contention when he slid wide on stage 12 and lost a few precious seconds in the mistaken belief that he had a puncture. Anxious to preserve his championship lead, the Finn settled for third rather than pushing for a fourth win of the campaign.
Neuville found Sunday’s faster and flowing stages more to his liking, which increased his confidence and ability to push, despite heavy overnight rain leaving the roads damp in places. His capture of fourth completed an encouraging showing on his second appearance on the demanding asphalt event following a handful of set-up issues on day one.
Mikkelsen’s bid to make up lost ground following his puncture on Saturday began with a brace of stage wins in his SKODA UK Motorsport Fabia. Stage 12 proved less successful for the Norwegian when he went off the road and then overshot a junction. But two further stage wins in the afternoon underlined the 22-year-old’s huge potential on his way to fifth position.
Finn Toni Gardemeister overcame two clutch failures and a 10-second penalty for a jumped start in his TGS Worldwide SKODA to fend off Craig Breen for sixth position. Both drivers impressed on their first appearances in Zlin with Breen’s performance particularly noteworthy. Seeded 20th, the 21-year-old from Ireland was the highest-placed M-Sport Ford Fiesta driver at the finish following an error-free outing.
Guy Wilks, languishing in 12th at the start of the day following his costly puncture on Saturday afternoon, battled back to eight position in his Peugeot UK 207 after posting several impressive stage times. But his frustrating visit to Czech Republic ended with alternator failure prior to the 13th stage.
Roman Kresta’s eagerness to secure maximum Czech championship points after rivals Pavel Valousek and Vaclav Pech both hit trouble on Saturday meant he was happy to settle for eighth. His only major concern during the rally was his puncture on stage five.
Swede PG Andersson survived a spin and a broken propshaft on stage 12 to clinch his first IRC points in his PROTON Motorsports’ Satria Neo in a highly encouraging ninth place. Estonian teenager Karl Kruuda rounded out the top 10 in his SKODA with Pole Michal Solowow 6.3s behind in 11th in an M-Sport Fiesta.
SKODA Sweden’s Patrik Sandell was 12th after upping his pace and confidence on his first visit to the Zlin stages. Irishman Robert Barrable charged a wall on Sunday morning but kept his composure to finish 13th in his privateer Fabia, one place ahead of PROTON driver Giandomenico Basso. SKODA Auto Deutschland duo Mark Wallenwein and Matthias Kahle were 19th and 20th on their Zlin debuts.
Bryan Bouffier was in the thick of the battle for a podium finish entering Sunday’s opening test only to go off the road two kilometres from the end of the stage. Impact with a boulder ripped two wheels from his Peugeot France 207 and resulted in his instant retirement.
“I was trying, doing my best when I went off, hit a boulder and broke off two wheels,” said the Rallye Monte-Carlo winner. “For sure I’m very disappointed but this is the race and I was trying to keep my position and also fight the guys in front of me.”
Jan Kopecky (Czech Republic), SKODA Fabia S2000, first overall: “It was a nice fight with Freddy until the last metre of the last stage and we enjoyed it a lot. Many people were much more nervous than me, I was quite relaxed and felt no pressure. I have to say it is my best win and we come back in the championship now but there is still a long way to go.”
Freddy Loix (Belgium), SKODA Fabia S2000, second overall: “I was hoping I could win but the first four stages I wasn’t so quick and didn’t have the feeling with the car. I was also missing a bit the rhythm. But then we changed the car and started to fight back from sixth to a few seconds from Jan. It was a great race for me and Jan was very quick.”
Juho Hanninen (Finland), SKODA Fabia S2000, third overall: “Okay I wanted to win but sometimes it’s better to accept not winning and take some points, which is important for the championship. The boys in front of me were on full attack and when I made a small mistake on stage 12 and thought I had a puncture they won eight seconds from me and that was it.”
IRC Production Cup
In the fight for the IRC Production Cup Jaroslav Orsak, in a Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX R4, triumphed by a healthy margin over Subaru Impreza driver Daniel Behalek. Martin Bujacek finished third in a Lancer with Vaclav Arazim next up in another Lancer. Vaclav Pech had been leading the class when he dropped out with suspension failure on stage six. He returned under SupeRally regulations on Sunday. Fumio Nutahara, in his Yokohama-supported Impreza R4, crashed into retirement on stage five.
IRC 2WD Cup
Stefano Albertini shone on his Zlin debut to clinch IRC 2WD Cup spoils for the first time in his Clio R3. The young Italian edged Czech rising star Vaclav Dunovsky, who struggled with rear suspension problems for much of the event in his Ignis. Jean-Michel Raoux boosted his IRC 2WD Cup title hopes in third position after overcoming an exhaust failure on his Clio. Overnight leader Petr Zednik, in an M-Sport Fiesta, dropped back to fourth following intercom and engine problems on the final day. Martin Kangur was the leading Honda Civic finisher in sixth place.