Andreas Mikkelsen didn't look like a man destined to be the 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion when he smacked his Skoda into a barrier within yards of the start of the Monte Carlo Rally in January. But just as his title-winning predecessors Kris Meeke and Juho Hanninen had done before him, Mikkelsen used a full campaign in rallying's burgeoning second-tier category to out-grow his predilection for calamity without losing his blistering speed, and proved he is ready for a big future at world championship level.
In 2011 the IRC boasted greater season-long strength in depth than the still-young series had mustered before and produced its closest action yet. Four rallies included victory margins of under two seconds, and five drivers went into the season finale with a title shot (six on paper, had Bryan Bouffier been present). And while the scoring system put greater emphasis on the concluding rounds in Scotland and Cyprus, even without the bonus points the fight would have been subject to a five-way battle.
Bouffier took a shock Monte Carlo victory by taking the right tyres when it snowed
Ironically the only man who would have been ruled out under a standard scoring plan was Mikkelsen; a reflection of how he came on ever stronger as the season progressed. A total of 38 stages wins - 14 more than anyone else - emphasised that the Norwegian was the year's fastest driver too.
Of the men he defeated, Skoda's favoured son Jan Kopecky, veteran Freddy Loix and shock Monte victor Bouffier were too often filed under 'steady' rather than 'spectacular' to be worthy title-winners. Reigning champion Hanninen was extraordinary at times, but a poor end to the season cost him as he focused on winning the S2000 World Rally title. But Thierry Neuville, in many ways the breakthrough star of the year, would've been just as deserving a champion as Mikkelsen. If, as is entirely possible, the pair reprise their fight in world title level in years to come, the 2011 IRC should be remembered as the series that really launched them into rallying's stratosphere.