At some point in every successful driver’s career, there’ll be a statement win. One that either puts them on the map or elevates them to another level.
By April 2011, Juho Hänninen was already firmly on the map. A works driver with Škoda Motorsport for the past two seasons, and champion of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2010, the Finn was a proven winner.
But only on the loose. He needed a Tarmac win to elevate him to the next level.
A first international victory on asphalt had almost come his way a few months earlier on the Monte Carlo Rally, but sudden snowfall prompted chaos that flipped the leaderboard on its head.
Hänninen had led by almost a minute when the stages were bone dry.
Rally Islas Canarias provided him with his first shot at redemption – but he at least knew he had the pace to win a dry Tarmac rally.
“Yeah, you are absolutely right,” Hänninen tells DirtFish.
“Monte was quite, let’s say, clear and in a way easy with the conditions until what happened happened! So yeah, actually that was one of the rallies where I had a really, really strong confidence and a really good feeling and the times were at the same time pretty good.
“After that. as you said. confidence came stronger and stronger and then Canaries was the next Tarmac rally and of course I really wanted… I knew that Jan Kopecký was looking forward to Canaries, again like a pure Tarmac rally and I knew that he would be strong and at the same time I really, really wanted to beat him over there!”
If Hänninen was Škoda’s gravel man, Kopecký was very much the Tarmac driver. The Czech had never won on gravel, just like Hänninen had never won on asphalt.
Hänninen therefore knew who his benchmark was, given both were driving for the same team in the same Fabia S2000.
But this confidence to take on the master at his own game had been two years in the making.
“When I went there [Škoda in 2009] I had only done like three Tarmac rallies before that, so basically no experience,” Hänninen explains.
“At the very beginning I was struggling quite a lot and he [Kopecký] was doing the donuts around me, so it took some time.
“But at that time we were testing a lot on Tarmac and when you test on the Czech type of Tarmac and you get confidence over there, then it’s quite easy, let’s say, to go for many Tarmac rallies because as we all know Czech Tarmac is quite special and difficult and low grip.
“So I was able to build the confidence over there thanks to a lot of driving, and then like this kind of rally in Canaries didn’t feel so difficult anymore.”
As reigning IRC champion, Hänninen was top seed but achieving the same result as his door card would require beating some of the best drivers in the world.
Not least team-mate Kopecký, but Monte winner and championship leader Bryan Bouffier, former World Rally Championship drivers Freddy Loix, Per-Gunnar Andersson and Toni Gardemeister, plus rising stars Andreas Mikkelsen and Thierry Neuville to name just a few.
Guy Wilks set the pace on the opening street stage, but as soon as the rally headed for the hills a pack of four soon began to break clear: Kopecký, Neuville, Loix and Hänninen.
After six stages, the quarter were covered by just 4.2 seconds before Kopecký scored a decisive stage win on SS7 to earn himself a 5.7s advantage over Neuville.
With the cancelation of the day’s final stage, that stood as Kopecký’s overnight lead heading into the second and final day. Hänninen was 8.6s adrift, just four tenths up on Loix’s fellow Fabia.
It was the kind of fight all drivers revel in. No mechanical dramas, just driver vs driver. Best man wins.
“Even though we had a different car to Thierry [Peugeot 207 S2000] they were really even, it was really made small differences if there was any and as the Canaries Rally is very clean, there wasn’t any gravel [on the road],” remembers Hänninen.
“So conditions were really similar for all of the drivers – not depending what is your starting position. So it was man against man, a really fair fight.”
And that pushed each competitor to the limit.
Hänninen adds: “I remember some stages, was it the second day when I really, really tried to push and it’s a bit like overdriving in a way you are sliding almost against the limiter in sixth gear – really, really overdoing things but if it pays back then the times are there.
“But you have to take clear risks to be even a bit faster than the others, but if you manage it then you know it’s difficult for them to take it back.
“The Canaries Rally is one of the rallies where it’s most hard to make the differences and I still remember, after a long time, that it was one of the most difficult rallies to make a clear… if you look back at the stage wins and the stage times it was all the time really, really equal.”
Equal as it may have been, but Kopecký – the defending winner from 2010 – was still the one to beat with the rally lead and four stage wins from seven. Loix was yet to top a stage, Neuville had shared a stage win but had to share it with Kopecký, while Hänninen clocked one scratch time on day one.
It was maybe a bit more of a challenging stage than the others and I knew that there I had the chanceJuho Hänninen
But the Finn woke up on the final morning in a determined mood. Just four stages, and 45 miles, of rallying remained, but Hänninen was going to make the most of each and every corner.
The 14.5-mile San Mateo stage was his battleground of choice. Storming to a convincing stage win on the first pass, beating Kopecký by 8.5s, the rally was blown wide open.
“I still remember that stage,” Hänninen says.
“If I remember rightly, it was maybe a bit longer, but as you said we had a good time and we won by a few seconds over Kopecký and I had decided already in the morning I would have a push on that one.
“It was maybe a bit more of a challenging stage than the others and I knew that there I had the chance, like I said earlier I took the risk and luckily I…” Hänninen chuckles.
“…I didn’t crash.”
Neuville was the new leader, but Kopecký and Hänninen were now just a tenth apart overall – 0.9s and one second down respectively.
And they’d remain one tenth apart after Artenara too, only Hänninen had now jumped ahead and into the lead for the first time after a 0.2s stage victory.
Bossing the second pass of San Mateo too earned Hänninen a 3.9s advantage with just one stage to go – one he knew would be hard for others to overturn.
“I knew that now I can keep it under control,” Hänninen recalls, “and at the same time I saw from Kopecký that he knew also that ‘this is difficult to get back this time’.
“He didn’t give up but he knew that now it’s really difficult.”
Indeed Kopecký didn’t give up. He found an impressive 2.4s over Hänninen on the final stage, but that wasn’t enough to deny the Finn. Victory was Hänninen’s by just 1.5s.
“it was funny because the year before, 2010, we had a good fight with Kopecký over there and then that time he was able to beat me – I think it was not so many seconds at the end he was faster over there,” Hänninen says.
“Then the year after it was opposite!
“It was really tight but it the victory felt more clear than what it is with the numbers, with the seconds, because every tenth of the second you had to really push for it.
“But altogether that was a big victory and I’m sure I mentioned it quite many times to Kopecký afterwards!”
It opened the floodgates, too.
With a campaign that prioritised the SWRC (which he won) over IRC, Hänninen didn’t make the trip to Corsica but on his very next asphalt start, Ukraine’s Prime Yalta Rally, he won.
Further asphalt wins would follow in 2012 as well, on famous events such as Ypres, Barum Rally Zlín and the Circuit of Ireland.
Hänninen became a winner on all surfaces and developed a deep appreciation for asphalt.
“When I joined Škoda in IRC, I think it was almost half of the rallies in IRC were Tarmac and at the same time in Czech there’s only a few gravel roads, so we were driving a lot of tests on Tarmac,” he explains.
“So those were really important, valuable things for me especially when I didn’t have any experience. I went there, I learned it and got the confidence and yeah you are right, that was nice to be successful also on Tarmac.
“And what actually happened is I started to like the Tarmac rallies more than the gravel. That’s interesting!
“And even nowadays I prefer Tarmac. So something changed.”
Islas Canarias 2011 was undoubtedly a statement win from Hänninen. But from a Finn, that’s a statement and a half!