Mikkelsen extends his lead over Hanninen in Azores

Defending IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen extended his advantage over Finland’s Juho Hänninen to 14.8 seconds after nine special stages of the 47th SATA Azores Rally on the rain-soaked island of São Miguel on Friday.

Partnered by Ola Fløene, Mikkelsen won four of the day’s five stages in atrociously wet and muddy conditions with his Skoda UK-backed Fabia S2000. “Everything is very good. It was a good day. I just have to continue to attack,” said Mikkelsen.

Hänninen, the winner of the event in 2011, retained a comfortable second place and finished the day 40 seconds in front of third-placed Frenchman Bryan Bouffier in his Peugeot France-backed 207 S2000.

Bruno Magalhäes inverted his Peugeot 207 S2000 on the sixth stage and lost fourth place. The young German duo of Sepp Wiegand and Hermann Gassner Junior duly fought a tooth and nail battle for his position from then on, with eight tenths of a second separating the Skoda pair at the end of stage six. Wiegner stalled on the final stage of the day and Gassner duly snatched fourth overall.

Azorean driver Ricardo Moura was rock solid in sixth position and held the Group N category lead in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX. “There was a lot of water and a lot of aquaplaning,” admitted Moura. “Over a crest you do not know if there is water or not. With the muddy conditions, we have no chance at all to catch the leaders.”

Ukrainian Ford Fiesta driver Oleksandr Salyuk was seventh overall and Portugal’s Sergio Silva, Ruben Rodrigues and Rui Lousado rounded off the top 10.

Day 2 – as it happened

Thirty-five of the original 39 entrants began day two’s six special stages and Mikkelsen took a tiny 1.4s advantage into the fourth Feteiras stage. Hungary’s László Vizin was one of those drivers who failed to make the start after suffering mechanical issues on day one.

Event officials had warned of damp, foggy conditions on higher ground, as Sepp Wiegand swept the stage and led crews into the day’s action and posted a time of 5m 44.0s.

Hänninen and Mikkelsen started from fourth and fifth on the road and edged inside Maghalães’s fastest time to date of 5m 30.0s with respective runs of 5m 25.8s and 5m 24.0s, as Mikkelsen extended his overall lead to 3.2s over his Finnish rival. Moura benefited from his road position to edge ahead of Wiegand and regain fifth.

The stunning backdrop of an azure blue volcanic crater lake greeted teams at the start of the 23.97km Sete Citades special, but conditions were tricky to say the least. Mikkelsen mastered his pace to perfection and extended his overall lead to 13.6s with a stunning time of 17m 36.7s.

“Heavy overnight rain has made the conditions very tricky,” said Andreas. “We are pushing quite hard – if we want to try and win this rally, we have to.” Hänninen survived a high-speed spin in the stage and retained second place.

Moura dropped 25 seconds to Wiegand and slipped behind Gassner Junior into sixth, but Dubai’s Rashid Al-Ketbi, Ukraine’s Oleksii Tamrazov and Britain’s Harry Hunt retired, with Al-Ketbi complaining of a broken right wheel on his Skoda and Hunt troubled with radiator problems.

“On the first corner of the first stage this morning, we slipped, locked up and hit the bank,” said Hunt. “There was not much damage on the car, but we hit the radiator and the engine overheated. We pulled out before the engine stopped.”

Wiegand comfortably beat his first stage pass on the re-run of Feteiras, but Maghalães inverted his Peugeot in the special and lost fourth position. Hänninen posted the target time of 5m 20.5s, but Mikkelsen managed to sneak inside the Finn again and extended his lead to 14.1s. Hungary’s Menyhért Króser stopped his Honda with technical issues.

Heavy rain affected the second run through Sete Citades and stage opener Wiegand complained about the treacherous conditions, as rivers of water ran through the stage finish. Hänninen was slower than Mikkelsen through the early part of the stage, but a late spurt enabled him to trim the Norwegian’s overall lead to 14.0s with the fastest time. Wiegand moved a further 0.5s in front of Gassner Jnr, but Romania-based Italian Marco Tempestini reportedly shed a wheel and retired in the stage.

Adverse weather conditions forced rally organisers to cancel stage eight and the final stage of the day between São Bras and Vila Franco was again shortened to 6.48km. It played into Mikkelsen’s hands perfectly and the Norwegian snatched a narrow stage win to take a 14.8-second lead into the overnight halt.

“It was not as bad as I expected,” said Hänninen. “I was a little bit too careful. Maybe I could take one or two (seconds), but no more. [Saturday] is still a long way.”

Today’s stages:
Saturday marks the final day of the opening IRC round and crews will tackle the remaining five special stages, totalling 85.44 competitive kilometres in a day’s route of 334.96km. Action begins with the 19.60km of the Graminhais (09.56hrs) test in the far north east of the island of São Miguel and is followed by the 22.02km Tronqueira stage (10.44hrs) that reaches the east coast.

A second run follows through the Grupo Marques (12.15hrs) super special stage, near Ponta Delgada, and the two specials in the east are repeated in the afternoon at 14.38hrs and 15.26hrs, respectively.

The event is being filmed and broadcast by official rights holder Eurosport and live updates are being aired on World Rally Radio.

47th SATA Azores Rally – positions after SS9:
1. Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Ola Fløene (NOR) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 51m 40.3s
2. Juho Hänninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 51m 55.1s
3. Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 – 52m 35.1s
4. Hermann Gassner Jnr. (DEU)/Klaus Wicha (DEU) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 54m 10.5s
5. Sepp Wiegand (DEU)/Timo Gottschalk (DEU) Skoda Fabia S2000 – 54m 24.5s
6. Ricardo Moura (PRT)/Sancho Eiró (PRT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX – 55m 42.4s
7. Oleksandr Salyuk (UKR)/Pavlo Cherepin (UKR) Ford Fiesta S2000 – 57m 06.7s
8. Sergio Silva (PRT)/Fernando Nunes (PRT) Subaru Impreza WRX – 58m 17.9s
9. Ruben Rodrigues/Estevao Rodrigues (PRT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX – 59m 49.7s
10. Rui Lousado (PRT)/Nuno R. Da Silva (PRT) Subaru Impreza STi R4 – 59m 53.3s
– Credit: SATA Rally Azores.