This weekend marks 10 years since Andreas Mikkelsen won the 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge title against the odds. We remember that epic season in this piece first published on October 25.
Andreas Mikkelsen winning Europe’s premier rallying title behind the wheel of a Škoda is a familiar tale. While this year he’s added his name to the European Rally Championship winners’ trophy, exactly 10 years earlier he was en route to an Intercontinental Rally Challenge title that would ultimately act as his launchpad to a works World Rally Championship drive.
Mikkelsen would dearly love his ERC – and WRC2 – success to do the same for 2022, but that is where the parameters differ and the similarities end. IRC 2011 was an against-the-odds triumph for Mikkelsen up against some of the very best drivers in the world in what has to go down as one of the most entertaining rallying seasons ever.
Allow us to tease you with the headline statistics: six title contenders, two heavyweight manufacturers, four events decided by 1.5 seconds or less and a title-winning margin of just 1.5 points.
It’s rare for the WRC to be upstaged, but despite the final round decider between Sébastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen, the IRC was just as – if not more – exhilarating to watch in 2011.
Debuting in 2006, the IRC rapidly gathered momentum as it aimed to give recognized regional drivers an opportunity to shine on an international stage. This it managed, but soon manufacturers like Škoda and Peugeot were also sending their drivers to complete the season too.
The class of 2011 was therefore epic. Škoda Motorsport entered defending champion Juho Hänninen and Jan Kopecký while Mikkelsen was somewhat controversially signed to drive Škoda UK’s entry as Guy Wilks moved across to pilot the Peugeot 207 S2000 2009 champion Kris Meeke had vacated with his Mini opportunity in the WRC.
Freddy Loix was a series regular in his own Fabia S2000 while in the Peugeot corner, Bryan Bouffier drove for Peugeot France and Thierry Neuville for Peugeot Belgium. With the best seven scores to count from 11 rounds, what ensued was an epic season where any of the six contenders would’ve been deserving champions.
The playground was befitting of the players. IRC, with its attractive Eurosport television package, was a coup for any event to be part of and as a result the calendar was an eclectic mix of classic WRC rallies (like Monte Carlo, Corsica, Sanremo and Cyprus) along with other European favorites Ypres, Barum Rally Zlín, the Azores and Rally Scotland.
Proceedings began on the Monte with the added allure of Petter Solberg on the start-list in a Peugeot 207 S2000. We’ve already taken a comprehensive look at this bonkers event earlier in the year, but the result was befitting of the season that would follow.
Despite heading to the Monte with zero career IRC points to his name, Bouffier took an unexpected victory as he was on the correct tires when the stages suddenly and dramatically turned snowy on the second day. Hänninen was the biggest loser, slumping to sixth after stunning to dominate the dry asphalt stages of the event.
The Finn would get his revenge on the next event, albeit three months later, on the Canary Islands Rally though. Asphalt ace Kopecký was in charge on the first day but only just; Neuville’s Peugeot harassing him for the lead with Hänninen and Loix remaining within 10s at the end of day one too.
Kopecký was shaded on the final day. He was immediately usurped by Neuville but Hänninen was the big mover, winning both of the morning stages to move into a 0.1s lead. Kopecký hit back on the final stage of the rally – gnawing 2.4s out of Hänninen – but it was Hänninen who prospered by a narrow 1.5s to record his very first asphalt win in the IRC.
Neuville – fresh from a split season in Junior WRC with a Citroën C2 S1600 and IRC in a 207 S2000 – was a mighty third but was even more impressive three weeks later in Corsica.
Leading the rally almost from start to finish – a spin briefly handing Bouffier a shot in the lead – Neuville belied his inexperience to control one of the most demanding rallies in the world, underlining his credentials as a major player in the 2011 IRC title fight. Kopecký was again second with Loix a distant third, giving Loix a five-point championship lead over both Kopecký and Neuville at this early stage.
Hänninen – whose 2011 campaign was centered on the SWRC with the IRC a handy bonus – proved his class once more with victory on the Yalta Rally, moving to the head of the field at the end of the second day despite a 10s penalty for a jump start.
The victory elevated Hänninen to the top of the points with Bouffier reginiting his own title challenge with a fighting second place, just 11.7s behind. Kopecký survived two off-road moments to claim another podium place.
The Azores would prove to be a real turning point in Mikkelsen's 2011 IRC campaign
Loix didn’t make the trip to Ukraine but certainly made his presence known on his home event – Ypres: winning by over 1m30s to move back into the championship lead. Bouffier lost his second spot due to his Peugoet’s steering failing FIA scrutineering, Hänninen was absent, Neuville crashed on the first stage while Kopecký wouldn’t even make it that far; binning his Fabia S2000 on the shakedown stage which injured co-driver Petr Starý’s collarbone.
The Azores was the season’s first gravel round and marked the midway point of the campaign. It was also the first we would really see of Mikkelsen’s true capabilities after SS1 crashes on the Monte and Ypres and two muted sixth places on the Canary Islands and Corsica.
Fourth on the Yalta Rally had been his best performance prior to round six but it could’ve been third were it not for a mistake that led to Mikkelsen’s Škoda spinning backwards into a tree that led to exhaust damage.
However the Azores would prove to be a real turning point in Mikkelsen’s 2011 IRC campaign. He chased Hänninen hard and was just 1.3s behind before the final day before team orders intervened and allowed Hänninen to score his third win of the season and move into the series lead yet again.
Kopecký vacuumed up his fourth podium from six, but the Czech driver was going to need a win soon if he was serious about fighting for the title. That win would finally come on Barum Rally Zlín – an event Kopecký has won more than any other driver – but he had to work hard for it.
Despite leading both Loix and team-mate Hänninen by 19.7s going into the final day, Loix – who had set his Škoda up too softly on the first day – hit back at Kopecký emphatically. He closed to within just one second with three stages to go but would ultimately lose out by a slender 1.2s; then the smallest winning margin in championship history.
Kopecký would waste little time in breaking his own record. Just two weeks later on the Mecsek Rally in Hungary, the Škoda driver would edge Neuville by a mere 0.8s in another thrilling finish.
Neuville had had a ragged Barum, surviving a sixth-gear excursion into the wildlife where he took out a small line of trees, but was back in peak form in Hungary. However it was Mikkelsen who was in the ascendancy, bossing the talented field after 12 of 14 stages before he ran wide through a quick right-hander, lost the rear of his Fabia S2000 and was out on the spot.
Determined for lightning not to strike twice, Neuville closed to within 0.3s of Mikkelsen ahead of the final test
Kopecký was therefore gifted an 8.1s lead with one stage remaining, and he surely thought a steady run through that final test would be enough. But Neuville had other ideas, beating his rival by 7.3s on the stage to just fall short; being left to rue a spin on SS10 that undoubtedly cost him a win.
The Peugeot driver would redeem himself on the Sanremo Rally though. Once again however it was Mikkelsen who set the pace before he was overhauled by Neuville’s compatriot Loix. But an uncharacteristic mistake on SS11 of 13 – where Loix lost the rear in a fast section and smacked against the road-side bank with great force – propelled Mikkelsen back into the lead.
But determined for lightning not to strike twice, Neuville closed to within 0.3s of Mikkelsen ahead of the final test and did what he’s become renowned for in later years, winning a final stage shoot-out to defeat his rival by just 1.5s overall.
It was the third epic finish in a row and an important victory for Neuville and Peugeot as although it was ultimately edged by Škoda to the manufacturers’ title on the following round, it recorded a clean sweep of the three classic events: Monte Carlo, Corsica and Sanremo.
Kopecký was only fourth on Sanremo but was continuing to build up his campaign with all of Škoda’s support firmly behind him. The final two rounds were on gravel though – not Kopecký’s favored surface – and there was a certain Norwegian determined to finally right his wrong.
Mikkelsen had waited long enough for an IRC victory. It would finally come on Rally Scotland – the home event for his Škoda UK squad. A couple of punctures aside, it was an assured performance from the 22-year-old who put himself right back into the thick of the title equation.
That’s because in a bid to keep entry numbers healthy for the final couple of rounds, series organizers altered the points coefficient to offer 1.5x points on Scotland and double points on the season-ending Cyprus Rally. So instead of securing 25 points for his win, Mikkelsen netted 37.5.
That perhaps controversial rule would ultimately prove decisive. Kopecký led the standings ahead of Cyprus on 131 points, six ahead of Hänninen who was second in Scotland after missing the last two rounds.
Neuville was third on 115 points with Mikkelsen (111.5), Bouffier (110.5) and Loix (103) all still in the running with 50 points up for grabs on the mixed-surface finale.
Hänninen was the favorite given his early-season form and gravel prowess, and had just secured his first world title (the SWRC) in between Scotland and Cyprus. But he would not retain his IRC title in 2011, making a bizarre error on just the second corner of the entire rally that put him out of the running.
That reduced the number of contenders to four as Bouffier didn’t even start the event as Peugeot chose to throw its weight behind Neuville with insufficient budget to run them both. But Neuville would soon be out of the picture too, puncturing while leading the rally before the alternator in his 207 S2000 failed.
Mikkelsen had to win to stand any chance of clinching the title, but he was absolutely flawless in Cyprus, leading for all but one of the rally’s stages to steal the title from Kopecký’s grasp by just 1.5 points to incredibly emotional scenes.
Ironically, Mikkelsen was the only one of the six contenders who would’ve been ruled out had championship points not been boosted for the final two rounds, but Kopecký simply wasn’t clinical enough and allowed Mikkelsen to slip through.
“This feeling, I’ve never had before,” said Mikkelsen at the time.
“Starting in Monte Carlo with such a disappointing start, halfway through the season it was looking like it was getting better but that second half… wow, what an ending to the season and here we are in Cyprus on top.
“I would never have believed that would happen and the feeling is just indescribable. So much effort has been put into these last five years not only from me but all the people around me so to give this back to them, everyone involved, it’s an incredible feeling.”
That feeling of euphoria may be traded for relief in 2021 as Mikkelsen looks to steer his career back on path following a couple of rejections
For an indication of just how happy the entire team was with this eleventh hour success, Mikkelsen was supposed to take part in the ‘Golden Stage’ that offered €40,000 to the fastest driver the day after Cyprus Rally ended, but the party went on so late the Škoda UK mechanics didn’t have time to prepare Mikkelsen’s Fabia. And who could blame them?
That feeling of euphoria may be traded for relief in 2021 as Mikkelsen looks to steer his career back on path following a couple of rejections, but no matter what happens next he can always be proud of his back-against-the-wall IRC title success of 2011.
Was he the best driver of the season? Possibly; Neuville and Hänninen certainly run him close to that accolade. Did he deserve to be champion? Absolutely.
Kopecký may well have felt peeved that a points quirk cost him the championship, but across the season he lacked the same conviction of his key rivals and had exactly half the number of stage wins as Mikkelsen. That controversial end, coupled to the epic individual rallies and intriguing balance between former and future WRC stars, all make IRC 2011 a season we’re still keen to remember and digest today.
What makes it all the more sweet is the season was soundtracked by the magical engine note of the Super 2000 machines.
IRC 2011 season stats:
|1||Andreas Mikkelsen||Škoda Fabia S2000||153.5|
|2||Jan Kopecký||Škoda Fabia S2000||152|
|3||Juho Hänninen||Škoda Fabia S2000||125|
|4||Freddy Loix||Škoda Fabia S2000||123|
|5||Thierry Neuville||Peugeot 207 S2000||115|
|6||Bryan Bouffier||Peugeot 207 S2000||110.5|