With one day remaining, the 2009 Rally Russia has so far been an extraordinary success for one man - Skoda Motorsport's Finnish star, Juho Hanninen
Two stages were cancelled today for safety reasons after the zero car crashed heavily immediately prior to the first stage of the day and crowds were in dangerous positions on the final stage of the day - but in between these upsets Hanninen set four more fastest times to maintain a 100 per cent record on the event.
"We didn't start the last stage because of safety issue, because people are on the road," said the leader. "Apart from that, the day was nice. No problems with the car, no mistakes. A few times it was a bit close to the rocks, but we got through without any punctures. It was quite a long day, I don't need to push any more, so I'm focusing on keeping my tyres away from troubles."
Just under a minute behind the flying Finn is his Czech team-mate Jan Kopecky, showing that as the team's asphalt expert he is still no slouch on the loose stuff and shaping up to slot in behind current Intercontinental Rally Challenge championship leader Kris Meeke - whose Peugeot team is not contesting this event - in the title battle.
It was an up and down day for Abarth, which has led the chase after the two Fabias. Giandomenico Basso got two more punctures but goes into the final day in third, a position held until the last stage of the day by his team-mate Anton Alen. The Finn could not capitalise when he tore a wheel off his Grande Punto on SS9 - meaning he must restart tomorrow under Superally regulations.
"It was a big route for day two but at the end of it I'm now back in third," said Basso. "Tomorrow will be a long and difficult day but I hope to do it good. I made a mistake during SS9, five kilometres from the finish - and we punctured another wheel, but we're still in the fight."
Guy Wilks is pushing hard to claw back lost ground after a puncture and subsequent jack problem dropped him from third to seventh this morning. Currently fifth, he has elected to hustle on with the MEM Proton Satria and sits six seconds behind the Peugeot 207 of Russian national champion, Aleksandr Zheludov.
"I will not try to fight with the Wilks, my goal is the national championship," said Zheludov. "It is a pity that the cancellation of SS10 makes it more difficult to achieve our goal, but I am pleased with the car. We've had a few problems but kept ourselves in the leading group, so that's good."
Franz Wittmann has doggedly pressed on in what is undoubtedly his best performance of the season so far, going into the final day in sixth place. The Ralliart driver from Austria was confident prior to the start of the rally, and has fulfilled that promise with style despite having a rock-beaten and weary rear differential to contend with.
"It was a hard day for me - we have some punctures and some problems with hitting big stones," he said. "We finished, we're here, the car is in one piece - I guess I'm happy with that. But I think tomorrow we will have an almost new car and will finish this rally, hopefully..."
A spirited drive from 2WD Cup leader Kaspar Koilta has been one of the highlights of the event, the Estonian putting in a thrilling performance throughout the event for Honda. However on the road section after the final stage of day two the Civic's suspension collapsed after the beating it had taken on the rough Russian stages and he will be forced to restart under Superally regulations.
Koilta's misfortune has handed the 2WD class lead to the Peugeot of Russian driver Dmitriy Voronov.
"Since the start of the rally I decided to play it safe and go carefully through the stages, once it was clear to see how much effect the heavy rains had on the stages," Voronov said. "Now I have the lead and have had no punctures or broken wheels, unlike a lot of people."
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap 1. Juho Hanninen Skoda 1h11m55.6s 2. Jan Kopecky Skoda + 59.8s 3. Giandomenico Basso Abarth + 2m47.4s 4. Patrik Flodin Subaru + 4m30.0s 5. Aleksandr Zheludov Peugeot + 5m03.7s 6. Guy Wilks Proton + 5m10.2s 7. Franz Wittmann Mitsubishi + 6m35.1s 8. Kaspar Koiytla Lada + 10m51.0s 9. Boris Zimin Mitsubishi + 11m09.9s 10. Alexey Katkov Subaru + 13m50.8s
The fifth Intercontinental Rally Challenge was the best yet, and it was Skoda UK driver Andreas Mikkelsen who emerged as champion from a tense five-way shootout at the season finale. Matt Beer reviews the season