ŠKODA UK Motorsport’s Andreas Mikkelsen will begin the defence of his Intercontinental Rally Challenge drivers’ title on his favourite round of the series, the Sata Rallye Açores (22-25 February).

Andreas Mikkelsen

Andreas has good reason to like the Azores, as it was his 2nd place finish in his factory-prepared ŠKODA Fabia S2000 last year that signaled the start of a sensational second half of the series, which led to the 22-year old becoming the youngest ever IRC champion.

Rain, low cloud and poor visibility made conditions on the mid-Atlantic archipelago extremely difficult in July last year, so the rally is likely to be even more challenging with its new winter date. But thanks to a highly developed pace note system, Andreas and co-driverOla Fløene are at their best when conditions are at their worst and hope wintry weather plays to their strengths.

The event has received a strong entry, with Juho Hänninen and Andreas aiming to give ŠKODA a solid start in the series – as it aims to win the IRC Manufacturers’ title for a third consecutive time.

Andreas: “Rally Azores is my favourite rally in the IRC calendar, so to begin my title defense there could not be better. The scenery is beautiful, the atmosphere on the island is fantastic and I love the nature of the stages. The gravel roads are really tricky in places – sometimes fast and narrow, but always really nice to drive. The weather this year could play a big role in the outcome of the results. If it’s wet and slippery with low cloud and poor visibility it will be very good for us, because the tougher the challenge the more we like it.

“I don’t feel under any pressure starting this year’s IRC as champion and I won’t change my mindset entering each rally. The competition will once again be strong, so I need to do what I did last year – stay focused, keep calm and do my best behind the steering wheel.

“The 2011 Rally Cyprus was my last event with ŠKODA UK Motorsport, and although we’ve all seen each other since then, it’s a long time since we’ve done a rally together and I’m really looking forward to that. The continuity within the team will be one of our strong points this year, as we all know what’s expected – and we all work at one hundred percent to support each other to achieve the same goal, which is to win!”

Sata Rallye Açores takes place on the picturesque island of São Miguel, located 930 miles (1500kms) west of Portugal and 2400 miles (3900kms) east of the USA. It begins on the evening of Wednesday 22 February with a ceremonial start, which is immediately followed byan innovative speed test along Ponta Delgada’s main seafront avenue. A large crowd is expected, and whilst the City Stage, which contains several chicanes and hairpins, won’t form part of the overall rally results, a separate trophy will be presented for the fastest crew.

The first competitive stage takes place the following afternoon, with three stages on Thursday 23 February, including the popular Grupo Marques super-special.

Leg 2 on Friday 24 February is a full day of competition. Starting at 09.30, it contains six stages, including two runs over the event’s signature Sete Cidades stage, which runs around the rim of an extinct volcano. Evening flex-service brings the day to an end after 51.48 miles (82.85kms) of action.

The third and final leg on Saturday 25 February is, at53.56 miles (86.2kms), the longest of the event. It contains four long stages (including the Tronqueira test which, at 13.9 miles (22.4kms), is the longest of the event) and a repeat of the Grupo Marques super-special, totaling 53.56 miles (86.2kms). The finish ceremony is at 17.30, after a total of 14 stages and 120.79 miles (194.4kms) of competition.

Eurosport will broadcast edited highlights of the event, so please check TV listings for details.