The arrival of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge to Ireland in 2012 pitched the Circuit of Ireland Rally right back into the international limelight. Super 2000 Skoda Fabias, Peugeot 207s, and Ford Fiestas recaptured Irish rallying following its final World Rally Championship appearance in 2009.
Three Skodas ruled the roads surrounding Armagh that Easter week with Finnish driver, Juho Hänninen, eventually coming out on top.
“I had a really good fight there in 2012 with [Andreas] Mikkelsen,” remembered Hänninen. “We were fighting really closely until Andreas made a small mistake in the super special stage.”
“That victory was one of my best that year as it wasn’t an easy rally.
“Also the conditions were tricky when we drove at night-time and it was raining.”
The battle between Hänninen and Mikkelsen started from Friday’s very first stage. The margin after those slippery night-time stages? 0.6 seconds.
Two loops of three flat-out County Armagh stages were crammed in before Saturday’s lunch-time service. With four stages remaining, the gap from Hänninen to Mikkelsen was just 2.3 seconds.
The fact that Skoda’s asphalt expert, Jan Kopecký, was trailing a minute and a half behind speaks volumes for the dazzling duel between Finland and Norway.
As the IRC crews headed into Lisburn’s seemingly straightforward super special, disaster struck for second-placed Mikkelsen.
“I remember that battle, it was completely insane,” said Mikkelsen. “We were flying on the stages, pushing to the absolute limit everywhere.
“It was really, really cool. Sadly on the super special it was raining, I braked too late and went sideways into a big hay bale.”
Despite bouncing back to win the penultimate stage, Banbridge North, Mikkelsen’s rally challenge was over.
They were special times for rallying in Northern Ireland and the Circuit of Ireland went from strength to strength in the European Rally Championship between 2014 and 2016.
Bobby Willis, the man behind “reawakening the giant”, has turned his attention to bringing the WRC back to Ireland. His plans for Rally Northern Ireland will no doubt evoke memories of those IRC and ERC events.
If you haven’t already completed Rally Northern Ireland’s survey, please do so before it closes on 14 April. Your input could prove pivotal in making Rally Northern Ireland a reality.
After all, 2012 Circuit of Ireland winner, Juho Hänninen, certainly approves:
“I have only positives memories from rallying in Ireland and I would like to see it in the WRC calendar.
“It’s a unique tarmac rally as roads are very different than in other tarmac rallies.
“The roads are quite challenging but at the same time really enjoyable to drive when you are confident with the car.”
Photos courtesy of Kevin Glendinning