There was a great deal of laughter, back-slapping and hugging going on in the Skoda service area in Cyprus’s picturesque Paphos harbour on Sunday evening as the Skoda UK Motorsport team celebrated clinching its second straight drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
Second place for Andreas Mikkelsen and Ola Floene on the season-ending Cyprus Rally meant everyone in the team could relax and let their hair down, in the knowledge of a job well done.
The sense of relief and satisfaction was palpable as they joked around in the service park, waiting for their star driver and co-driver to appear for a quick celebration prior to heading off for the official prizegiving ceremony in the town centre. For a bit of light entertainment, they were also getting ready to carry out a final service on Mikkelsen’s Fabia Super 2000, the difference being that this time all the jobs would be handled by the team bosses, with their efforts being judged by the real service crew.
Team principal Pierfrancesco Zanchi was given the task of changing the left front wheel. But he had a problem: someone had made off with the battery needed to power his wheel gun. Amid a fresh burst of laughter, the battery materialised from behind someone's back just in time for him to clip it into place as the Fabia rolled into the service area.
After Mikkelsen and Floene had emerged from the car to the cheers and applause of everyone in the crowd, the temporary service crew went to work, changing the wheels, downloading data and giving the car a quick clean prior to its appearance on the podium in the town centre.
The judges' scores were generous in the extreme for all but Zanchi's wheel-changing efforts; still struggling with his wheel gun, he earned plenty of light-hearted ribbing and came away with a score of just three out of 10. The temporary team co-ordinator, relishing the chance to bark out orders, had just demanded a gearbox change when the fun had to come to an end, because Mikkelsen and Floene were due at the prizegiving ceremony.
A win on the notoriously rough, car-wrecking Cyprus event would have been a great way to finish off the season and was entirely on the cards, because Skoda UK Motorsport's closest rivals, Jan Kopecky and Juho Hanninen, driving identical Fabias, had chosen not to take part in the event.
But Mikkelsen's hopes were dashed by a series of punctures and damage to his suspension on the rocky gravel stages that make up most of the rally and he had to settle for second place behind the turbocharged 1.6-litre Ford Fiesta of Qatar's Nasser Al-Attiyah, the Cyprus event also being a round of the Middle East rally championship.
On one stage on the final day, Mikkelsen also had to contend with a dim-witted local who was bumbling along the road in his 4x4, oblivious to the fact that the Fabia was bearing down on him at high speed. Frantic shouting and gesticulating by spectators finally alerted the local to the situation and he got out of the way with just seconds to spare.
Amid all the post-rally celebrations, there was also a hint of sadness and a strong sense of finality among the team, because whatever they do next, it will be in a new-look championship and without Mikkelsen and Floene. The curtain has been drawn on the IRC – a series that has lacked strength in depth since Peugeot pulled out at the end of 2011 – and a new European Rally Championship is taking its place, featuring cars built to the new, cheaper R5, S2000 and RRC (Regional Rally Car) regulations.
Meanwhile, Mikkelsen seems certain to be joining Volkswagen as the junior driver in its new works team in the World Rally Championship in 2013, and at the same time he is parting company with his super-experienced co-driver, Floene, who has played such a big part in the 23-year-old Norwegian driver's rise to stardom. In a fitting tribute to his contribution to the team, Floene got to do the driving on the final stage of the rally – and set a highly competitive time.
It may be the end of an era for Skoda UK Motorsport in its current form, but it has been the dominant force in the IRC for the past couple of years and has successfully propelled Mikkelsen onto the world stage. For the double IRC drivers' champion, nothing less than the WRC title will do now.