Hanninen and Mikkelsen set to lock horns at SATA Rallye Azores

Finland’s Juho Hänninen will lock horns with Norwegian rival Andreas Mikkelsen when the 47th SATA Azores Rally gets the 2012 Intercontinental Rally Challenge (ITC) underway in Ponta Delgada, tomorrow (Thursday).

The Skoda duo fought a frantic battle for supremacy in last year’s three-day event over the technical and demanding gravel tracks that make the Azores’ premier sporting event such a challenge.

Hänninen and co-driver Mikko Markkula managed to snatch a narrow victory on that occasion after team orders came into play, but Mikkelsen had the last laugh by eventually securing the IRC title. Both drivers are likely to be equally matched once again in their Skoda Fabia S2000s over the 14 special stages that will decide the outcome of the first of 13 rounds of this year’s IRC.

The Norwegian may, however, have a slight advantage after taking part in three events already this season.

“Rally Azores is my favourite rally in the IRC calendar, so to begin my title defence there could not be better,” said Mikkelsen. “The scenery is beautiful, the atmosphere on the island is fantastic and I love the nature of the stages. The gravel roads are really tricky in places – sometimes fast and narrow, but always really nice to drive.

“The weather this year could play a big role in the outcome of the results. If it’s wet and slippery with low cloud and poor visibility it will be very good for us, because the tougher the challenge the more we like it.”

The narrow, undulating gravel special stages make rallying on the Azores a unique experience and one that has already won high acclaim with IRC entrants over the last three years.

In total contrast to the super special stage that runs twice through a quarry near Ponta Delgada on Thursday afternoon and Saturday lunchtime, the picturesque Sete Citades stage – repeated twice on Friday – takes cars along the rim of a dormant volcano and provides one of the most spectacular backdrops in world rallying.

Both Hänninen and Mikkelsen know that they face fierce competition from several other regular IRC faces. Frenchman Bryan Bouffier ran strongly last year and is sure to be competitive in his Peugeot France-backed 207 S2000.

Multiple Portuguese rally champion Bruno Magalhäes won the event in both 2008 and 2010 and would dearly love to start his 2012 campaign with a third win to complete the Azores’ hat-trick and join only two other drivers – Carlos Bica (four wins) and Fernando Peres (seven victories) – who have achieved at least three outright successes in the illustrious 47-year history of the rally.

The UAE’s Rashid Al-Ketbi tackled a solitary round of the IRC in 2011 before committing to a full programme of rallies this year with his Skydive Dubai Rally Team Skoda. The Dubai-based driver is the first Arab to tackle a full IRC programme and will be aiming for a points-scoring finish rather than a podium on his Azores’ debut.

The talented Hermann Gassner Jnr. has his eyes firmly set on the top three with a Red Bull-backed Skoda and young Sepp Wiegand is also likely to feature at the business end of the leader board.

The Ukrainian duo of Oleksandr Salyuk and Oleksii Tamrazov sandwich the experienced Romania-based Italian driver Marco Tempestini (Subaru) on the starting line-up. Tamrazov has teamed up with the 2010 FIA Middle East Rally Championship’s winning Italian co-driver Nicola Arena in his Dream Team Ukraine-backed, M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000.

Azorean Ricardo Moura heads the strong IRC Production category in his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX and Paulo Maciel starts as the favourite for honours in the IRC 2WD Cup at the wheel of his Citroën.

Tomorrow (Thursday) five of the leading drivers will attend the official pre-event press conference at Portas do Mar in Ponta Delgada, shortly before the official podium start in the centre of the administrative centre of the island of São Miguel precedes three day one special stages.

The opening Coroa Da Mata special runs for 8.25km from 14.29hrs (16.29hrs CET) and winds its way through scenic rural land to the north of the island, to the east of the town of Ribeira Grande.

The second special starts at 15.02hrs and offers 16.18 competitive kilometres between São Brás and Vila Franca, while the day’s action draws to a close with a short super special stage of 2.2km in a quarry, near Ponta Delgada, from 16.07hrs.

The event will be filmed and broadcast by official rights holder Eurosport and live updates will also be aired on World Rally Radio via www.ircseries.com.

Top Ten starters (unofficial):
1. Juho Hänninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) – Skoda Fabia S2000
2. Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Ola Floene (NOR) – Skoda Fabia S2000
3. Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) – Peugeot 207 S2000
4. Ricardo Moura (PRT)/Sancho Eiró (PRT) – Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX
5. Bruno Magalhães (PRT)/Carlos Magalhães (PRT) – Peugeot 207 S2000
6. Hermann Gassner Jnr. (DEU)/Klaus Wicha (DEU) – Skoda Fabia S2000
7. Sepp Wiegand (DEU)/Timo Gottschalk (DEU) – Skoda Fabia S2000
8. Rashid Al-Ketbi (UAE)/Khaled Al-Kendi (UAE) – Skoda Fabia S2000
9. Oleksandr Salyuk (UKR)/Pavlo Cherepin (UKR) – Ford Fiesta S2000
10. Marco Tempestini (ITA)/Aorin Pulpea (ITA) – Subaru Impreza STi R4
– Credit: SATA Rally Azores Media.