With two stages remaining, 8.4 seconds were all that were in it.
Škoda vs Škoda. Sébastien Loeb vs Andreas Mikkelsen. Who would win the 2023 Azores Rally?
Loeb was king across Friday’s opening five stages, but Mikkelsen had come back at him on Saturday morning.
Fresh from a strong 3.2s stage win on the previous test, no matter which way the momentum swung the rally’s penultimate stage, a second pass of Graminhais, was going to be decisive.
And it was.
Ironically Erik Cais set the pace in his Fabia RS Rally2, but the 9.8s that Mikkelsen dropped to Loeb killed his victory hopes. The 2021 WRC2 champion had touched a bank, damaged his Škoda and was therefore forced to cede the win to the most successful driver in World Rally Championship history.
Of all drivers to lose out to, Loeb’s one most competitors would pick. But his small mistake on the penultimate stage is not where Mikkelsen feels he lost a third win on the Portuguese island. He traces back his deficit to the opening day – and for very good reason.
“I have to say we had a good weekend, we really enjoyed it,” Mikkelsen told DirtFish.
“It was of course special to have Sébastien in the team. Straightaway on the test he found a good feeling with the car – I mean the car is easy to drive so that’s also been the main focus of Škoda is that drivers can go quickly into the car and it’s easy to drive, it’s very predictable, and it looked like he found the rhythm very quickly inside the car.
“On day one it was really hard to follow him to be honest, it was quite damp and wet. He was running Michelin tires, we were running Pirelli.
“The softest Michelin is quite a lot softer than the softest Pirelli so it didn’t matter how hard I was pushing there was just no way to do the stage times he was doing on the Michelins.
“I also had a puncture on the first stage so we had to drive the whole day without a service so I had to try and be a bit careful as well to try and not get another puncture because that means retirement.”
Rubber, therefore, turned out to be critical. On both days.
“We reset on day two,” Mikkelsen continued. “It was a bit drier, it was not raining anymore, and we were on the same tire compound but his Michelin was then a little bit too soft so he had to go on the medium and then we were starting to catch some time.
“But I lost too much on day one so I had to catch eight seconds on the last two stages, I had to give everything and I touched a bank where we damaged the toe of the car. I managed to fix it before the last stage but anyway he was too far in front then.”
Drivers tend to hate finishing second – a position many feel makes them simply the first loser – but Mikkelsen is content he couldn’t have been any quicker on what was only his second competitive start in the Škoda he had a big hand in developing.
“Overall I’m happy with the driving,” he said.
“Of course it’s something different to do a rally with the new car compared to testing so I changed the setup a bit compared to what I thought I would like so overall it was a great test for the future.
“Of course we would have loved to win the fight with Sébastien but we just lost too much time on day one in damp and wet conditions, so it was nothing we could really do.”
Mikkelsen called Azores a “great test for the future” – so what of his future?
We know he’s planning to head back to WRC2 this season, but how soon will we see him back on the world stage?
“I don’t think we can go public yet with that,” he replied, “but it’s not so long until we are into our first rally.
“That’s also why I thought Azores was going to be a good place to have a test.”