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Juha in mood to be best, bar none

Officially, Juha Hanninen’s target this year is the European rally championship and not the Intercontinental Challenge series he won in 2010.

But he is adamant he is not here to play a secondary role to reigning IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen on the Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland.

“I would not be doing this rally or any rally if I could not try to win,” insists the 30-year-old Finn who is a key member of the powerful Skoda squad expected to dominate the event which begins from Belfast City Hall this afternoon (4.00pm).

“It’s true I am not scheduled to do all the IRC rounds this year, and will try to win the European championship instead, but I will be doing my best to win here too. Team orders? No, definitely not.”

Skoda have won 16 of the last 25 rounds of the IRC and such is the Czech manufacturer’s grip on the series that the initial announcement of their plans for 2012 suggested they were confident enough to divide their forces: Hanninen to Europe, Jan Kopecky to the Czech championship and only Mikkelsen, entered under the Skoda UK banner, to contest the full IRC programme.

Hanninen and Kopecky, they indicated, would dip in and out of the IRC to ensure Skoda retained the manufacturers’ championship.

Mikkelsen duly won the opening round in the Azores, with Hanninen second, and the classy Norwegian would probably have won round two as well but for an engine problem on the final stage which allowed Kopecky to take the victory.

But then came the surprise: all three being sent to Ireland, the official line being this is one of their strongest European markets.

Whatever the reasons, it is the Circuit of Ireland’s gain and the entry list boasts a trio of drivers who between them have won 15 rounds of the series. And the most successful of these is Hanninen.

He has won eight times, the most by any Skoda driver, and even managed to fit in a championship-winning run in the 2011 World S2000 category.

But Hanninen is regarded as the team’s gravel specialist and has never won an IRC round on tarmac. However, he is undeterred.

“I have never been to Ireland before so it is all new to me but from what I have seen from the tests we did earlier in the week the stages will be like gravel roads with tarmac on top,” he said.

Hanninen, you see, is not your typical Finn. He has a keen sense of humour to go with his laidback “seen it all before” persona. He takes everything in his stride including the challenge of the Circuit’s narrow, bumpy, slippery roads.

“They are not typical of the usual European tarmac rallies so we have had to work had on finding a good set-up for the car,” he explained. “The ride height is higher, the suspension softer and we have had to work on the differential settings to account for the frequent changes of grip level.

“It will be a big test for sure but I’m looking forward to it and maybe this is the place to get my first tarmac win.”

He may well be right and with a line-up which also includes Mikkelsen and Kopecky as well as rising young German star Sepp Wiegand and Ireland’s former Citroen trophy champion Robert Barrable, all in S2000 Fabias, Skoda may even sweep up all the podium places.

Belfast Telegraph