Hanninen leads the field in Ypres

Intercontinental Rally Challenge champions past and present suffered differing fortunes on the opening day of the Geko Ypres Rally in Belgium yesterday. While Juho Hänninen, IRC title winner in 2010, impressed by reaching the overnight halt leading by 26.8 seconds, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen’s hopes of a first IRC victory on asphalt have suffered a huge blow after he went off the road into a ditch on SS5, losing more than one minute in the process.

Mikkelsen, in a Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia S2000, made the perfect start to the event, celebrating his 23rd birthday in style by winning the opening Dikkebus stage west of Ypres. However, Hänninen hit back by going quickest on the next stage despite briefly running off the road in his factory Fabia. Thereafter the Finn, on hard compound tyres, proved unstoppable as Mikkelsen struggled with a lack of stability caused by his decision to select a medium compound tyre with several ‘cuts’ for extra grip in the drying conditions.

Anxious to ensure a podium finish in his efforts to make it two IRC titles in succession, Mikkelsen opted for a risk-free strategy on stages four and five only to brake too late for one of the rally’s countless slippery junctions and go off the road. “I was trying not to let Juho get too far away,” said Mikkelsen. “I lost one minute and I will do all I can to catch the time back tomorrow. I just have to drive fast.”

Hänninen, who could make it ten IRC-career wins if he stays in front on today’s 12 stages, said: “It was not so easy on the first stage because the conditions were quite slippery but it’s not been a bad day and I’m happy to be leading. Staying on the road is my only plan for tomorrow.”

Mikkelsen’s delay inadvertently caused frustration for local hero Freddy Loix, the seven-time Ypres winner, who lost time when Mikkelsen rejoined the road a short distance in front of him. Making his first start in the IRC in 2012, Loix is second overall in his 2C Competition-run Peugeot 207 S2000.

Skoda Belgium’s Pieter Tsjoen admitted to a few gear selection mistakes but holds the final podium spot, albeit a scant 13.4 seconds ahead of Mikkelsen. Patrik Flodin is a strong fifth on his debut for Petter Solberg Engineering and his maiden run in Ypres. The Swede says he’s still not fully recovered from the shoulder injury that kept him out of Giru di Corsica-Tour de Corse back in May. His only mistake occurred when he overshot a junction on SS6.

Poland’s Michal Sołowow holds sixth in his Peugeot with Mathias Viaene seventh and Oleksandr Saliuk eighth on his Ypres debut in a Dream Team Ukraine Fiesta. Robert Barrable wasn’t satisfied with the set-up of his Skoda Ireland-backed Fabia but is nevertheless on course to claim a top ten finish on his second Ypres Rally appearance in succession, despite an overshoot on SS2.

Andreas Aigner heads the battle for IRC Production Cup honours in his Subaru Impreza R4 STI after turbo failure slowed Bob Colsoul on the final stage. Aigner, from Austria, reported a bad vibration and a loss of brakes on SS3 and an overshoot in the low-lying sun on SS6. Cédric De Cecco is second with Kris Princen third in his Renault Mégane RS. A replacement gearbox at mid-evening service transformed the performance of Jasper Van den Heuvel’s Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X.

Princen is also eligible for the IRC 2WD Cup and tops the division with Martin Kangur 03.6 seconds behind in his Honda Civic Type R. Mathieu Arzeno is third with former IRC 2WD Cup champion Harry Hunt on course to extend his title lead in fourth position.

Florion Gonon’s first start in the IRC in a Super 2000 car ended after a handful of corners of the opening stage when the Swiss crashed and rolled his Saintéloc Racing Peugeot 207.

Today’s action consists of 12 stages. The finish is scheduled for 22h40 in Ypres’s main square where thousands of fans are expected.

Overall Standings after SS6:
01) J. Hanninen/M. Markkula (Skoda) – 46m 42.3s
02) F. Loix/l. Vanneste (Peugeot) + 26.8s
03) P. Tsjoen/E. Chevaillier (Skoda) + 01m 00.6s
04) A. Mikkelsen/O. Floene (Skoda) + 01m 14.0s
05) P. Flodin/G. Bergsten (Ford) + 01m 29.0s
06) M. Solowow/M. Baran (Peugeot) + 01m 52.1s
07) M. Viaene/P. Vyncke (Peugeot) + 02m 12.6s
08) O. Saliuk/A. Aftanaziv (Ford) + 02m 25.4s
09) R. Barrable/S. Loudon (Skoda) + 03m 03.2s
10) A. Aigner/D. Ertl (Subaru) + 03m 19.1s