The reigning Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion was a frontrunner in the Production Car championship in 2008 and has won the Group N category on Neste Oil Rally Finland for the past two seasons.
However, the Finn’s route to the top of the drivers’ table hasn’t been entirely straightforward. He finished second in class on Rally Guanajuato Mexico in early March after recovering from a time-consuming spin on the first day of the event - and when Nasser Al-Attiyah was excluded from the results for a technical infringement.
On his next appearance, in Sardinia, Hanninen admitted to being outpaced by Ott Tanak, insisting that the Estonian’s Ford Fiesta was simply too quick thanks to its uprated engine. A similar scenario was being played out on the Acropolis Rally last month, only for Tanak to crash out of the lead on day two, which handed Hanninen a lead he wouldn’t relinquish.
“That was really important for the championship,” says Hanninen. “Without that it could have been very difficult to catch Ott because he has been very fast this year.”
Tanak’s crash in Greece coupled with his error on the second day in Mexico when his car ended up down a ravine has dropped him to fifth in the standings, 21 points adrift of Hanninen. “The championship could be finished for us,” was Tanak’s view following his Acropolis exit.
Martin Prokop began his campaign with an inherited victory in Mexico following Al-Attiyah’s exclusion. He was third in Sardinia but a mechanical failure in Greece restricted him to a lacklustre fifth place. Nevertheless the Czech Fiesta driver is second overall in the points.
Bernard Sousa took victory in Jordan and was second in Greece but an off-road moment held him back in Sardinia before he retired on the final day when his Fiesta suffered alternator failure.
Karl Kruuda trails third-placed Sousa in the drivers’ classification largely because the promising Estonian teenager has already contested four of his seven permitted events, while the bulk if his rivals have been in action on three occasions.
Hanninen’s team-mate Hermann Gassner Jr has made steady progress in his Fabia and is sixth in the standings, one place ahead of the luckless Al-Attiyah. The experienced Qatari was expected to challenge Hanninen for the title this season but dropped out of contention after failing to score on his opening two rallies. Following his exclusion in Mexico, the Fiesta pilot was heading for victory in Jordan until a broken engine forced his retirement.
Frigyes Turan, who partners Tanak in Markko Martin’s MM Motorsport concern, took a season-best third in Greece. He heads the fast but misfortunate Eyvind Brynildsen with Abarth Grande Punto driver Albert Llovera 10th in the table.
Neste Oil Rally Finland is next on the agenda for the SWRC runners where victory for Hanninen would go along way towards the 29-year-old capturing the crown.