Sébastien Loeb saw off a second day attack from fellow World Rally Championship winner Andreas Mikkelsen to win the Azores Rally at his first attempt.
Loeb won the famous island event by 19.2 seconds alongside his partner Laurène Godey on what was also his first ever start in a Škoda Fabia RS Rally2.
A superb late charge from Erik Cais looked to have earned him the final spot on the podium before he faded to sixth on the final stage, leaving Nil Solans clear to claim third place.
After years featuring on the European Rally Championship tour, the Azores fell off the 2023 calendar but featured higher profile stars than arguably ever before as the event organizer invited Mikkelsen, Ole Christian Veiby and of course Loeb.
Seeded one and two, former Hyundai Motorsport team-mates Loeb and Mikkelsen would prove to be the two pacesetters all weekend in their Toksport Škodas – Loeb making his first rally start of the year and Mikkelsen his second after an appearance in Qatar in February.
Mikkelsen and co-driver Torstein Eriksen were quickest on the qualifying stage – albeit by a mere 0.021s – but it was Loeb and Godey who set the pace over Friday’s opening leg.
Mikkelsen won the Grupo Marques super-special stage that concluded the day, but four consecutive stage wins – including a huge run on the famous volcano stage Sete Cidades, where he was quickest by 6.8s – earned Loeb a healthy 15.1s advantage overnight.
However, that put the nine-time world champion first on the road for Saturday’s seven stages, and therefore at even more of a disadvantage to Mikkelsen who helped develop the Fabia RS Rally2 and has won the Azores twice before.
But road cleaning is a skill Loeb became more than accustomed to during his WRC title-winning pomp, and he expertly managed to cede just 3.5s to his Norwegian rival over the morning loop.
Mikkelsen came out the blocks hard on the afternoon loop though and slashed 3.2s out of Loeb’s lead on SS10 to trail by just 8.4s with two tests left to run.
But Mikkelsen’s victory bid would unravel on Graminhais 2 when, pushing hard, he hit a bank with the right-rear of his Škoda and caused damage. WRC2 driver Cais impressively won the stage, but more importantly Mikkelsen fell to 18.2s off the lead with just the powerstage remaining.
Loeb was off the hook. Suddenly he was under no pressure, and the 49-year-old was clear to claim the 106th victory of his distinguished rallying career as well as the powerstage win.
Mikkelsen was still able to secure second ahead of an entertaining scrap for third.
Cais vaulted into contention with his stage win on SS11 and started the powerstage a single second behind ERC event winner Solans, who was driving the older Fabia Rally2 evo versus Cais’ newer RS Rally2 version.
But a poor time on the final stage undid all of Cais’ good work and meant he had to settle for sixth, leaving Solans unchallenged to scoop third ahead of Veiby who contested his first rally outside of Scandinavia since his six-month WRC ban for a COVID-19 breach in 2021.
Ricardo Moura, who was agonizingly denied the win last year after ERC champion Efrén Llarena’s epic final stage charge, finished as the top local driver (as in Portuguese) in fifth overall.