Alexey Lukyanuk laid down an emphatic marker for his ERC rivals to aim for, leading Azores Airlines Rallye from Thursday afternoon all the way through to Saturday’s final stage, and capping his wining start to this year’s FIA European Rally Championship with donuts before the finish line. Portuguese drivers Ricardo Moura and Bruno Magalhães tried their best, but had no answer for Lukyanuk’s rapid pace.
Chris Ingram won a dramatic ERC Junior Under 28 battle, moving into first in Saturday’s final stage following an accident for chief rival Martin Koči. Diogo Gago secured ERC Junior Under 27 in his home event, beating ADAC Opel Junior Rallye Team factory driver Mārtiņš Sesks and Team Rallye Spain’s Efrén Llarena to first. Juan Carlos Alonso mounted an incredible comeback to win ERC2, recovering from a broken fuel pump on Thursday to make up three minutes and beat Sergei Remennik to victory.
Leg two recap: Lukyanuk opens his ERC 2018 account with victory
Holding a 21.8 second lead over local legend Ricardo Moura, Lukyanuk found a way to drive around brake issues caused by a leaking caliper to win Saturday morning’s two long stages, nearly doubling his lead ahead of second placed Moura to 37.8 seconds.
Moura went all out attack in his attempts to reel in the rapidly escaping Lukyanuk, but his push went slightly too far when he clobbered a bank and spun his ŠKODA Fabia R5 in SS11, Tronqueira’s morning pass. Behind, Bruno Magalhães started the day in third and within touching distance of the leading pair, but a broken rear differential cost him over half a minute and ruined his chances of a dream victory on home soil by midday service.
Lukyanuk took a steady approach to the final loop of stages, conserving his tyres and trying not to make any mistakes. Moura’s pace faded somewhat in the afternoon, dropping to 47.9 seconds off first place before leg two’s final stage.
Russia Performance Motorsport’s lead driver set hearts racing with only a few hundred meters of Tronqueira’s second pass remaining, Lukyanuk pulling wide to celebrate his impending victory with donuts. His showmanship cost over half a minute, but with nearly one minute in hand, entertaining the onlooking fans made no difference to the standings, sealing victory by 16.4 seconds.
“With these two guys it was a great battle. I’m really proud to be in this company and to win in front of so many people and spectators to always support us and cheer us. Thank you Azores!” said Lukyanuk.
“I tried to suppress my obvious way to drive and my feelings, my intention to push harder all the time. It was a tough rally for me to control myself! In the last stage before the finish line I boiled over with donuts.
“I’m really happy for the team, for sponsors and everybody. I hope we keep going like this!”
Despite taking what he described as ‘wrong’ tyres, Magalhães pressed on and closed in on Moura ahead, but came only 9.3 second short of stealing second place away by the finish.
National drivers Carlos Vieira and Bernardo Sousa lost a chance of an top 10 ERC finish after separate accidents in Saturday’s opening stage. Vieira bent his right-rear suspension while contact with a bank sent Sousa’s oil temperatures soaring, costing Vieira over four minutes and forcing Sousa to retire.
SS11 was delayed by Frank Tore Larsen crashing his Ford Fiesta R5 into a tree, blocking the stage and forcing his retirement. Hubert Ptaszek contributed to the final stage drama by crashing into a farm building, a mix-up caused by an incorrect pace-note.
Chris Ingram, Fredrik Åhlin, Norbert Herczig, Łukasz Habaj, Rhys Yates, Ricardo Teodósio and José Pedro Fontes completed the top 10 positions.
ERC Junior Under 28: Ingram defeats Koči in dramatic finish
Chris Ingram capped his ERC Junior U28 and four-wheel-drive debut with a first class victory, as chief rival Martin Koči crashed out on leg two’s final stage. Ingram had extended his lead to 15.8 seconds after Saturday’s opening stage, but a puncture through Tronqueira’s opening pass sent him straight back into Koči’s clutches. Reigning ERC Junior U27 champion Ingram then went into tyre-saving mode in SS13, ceding first place to Koči. Ingram replied immediately through SS14, regaining the lead and setting up an epic showdown with a slim 4.7 second advantage. Koči’s fantastic efforts came to a tragic end in Tronqueira’s rally-closing second pass, ripping a wheel from his ŠKODA Slovakia-backed Fabia R5 and unable to complete the stage. Fredrik Åhlin inherited second place in his absence, a sensible and straightforward approach to his final day wrapping up an ERC Under 28 podium in only his second ERC start. Likewise, Rhys Yates scored his first ERC Under 28 podium with third place. Taking a deliberately cautious approach to preserve points for his Portuguese championship campaign, Luis Rego brought his Ford Fiesta R5 home in one piece to clinch fourth place, while an impressive Fabian Kreim set the fastest time of anyone in SS13, even beating ‘Russian Rocket’ Lukyanuk and last year’s overall runner-up Bruno Magalhães on his way to fifth in class. Tamara Molinaro was extremely unlucky to pick up punctures in both passes of Tronqueira, but her perseverance was rewarded by sixth place in ERC Under 28. Behind her were returning retirees from Friday and Saturday, Tomasz Kasperczyk, Laurent Pellier and Pierre-Louis Loubet securing positions seven through nine. OSCARO-backed Loubet showed glimpses of what might have been, setting a trio of overall top five stage times in leg two’s afternoon loop. Hubert Ptaszek rolled his ŠKODA Fabia R5 while driving flat-out, crashing into a farm building and becoming stuck for over 20 minutes. Spectators came to his aid to extricate his car, dropping him beind Pellier and Loubet to tenth.
ERC Junior Under 27: Gago streaks clear for home win
Diogo Gago put his local knowledge to great use, further extending a 40 second lead from Friday to secure ERC Junior U27 victory by over a minute aboard his PEUGEOT 208 R2. Mārtiņš Sesks had been duelling with Gago for victory on Friday, but come Saturday he was instead looking backwards, fending off Efrén Llarena who had suffered a puncture and lost one minute the day before. A gearbox problem would settle their battle, Sesks losing first and second gear late on during Tronqueira’s rally-ending test and dropping him behind an ecstatic Llarena. Simon Wagner looked all set to pick up fourth place, but a myriad of technical gremlins ground his car to a halt shortly after leg two’s penultimate stage. Power steering failure coupled with a loose gear level made finishing SS14 difficult, and gearbox failure sidelined Wagner only 22 competitive kilometres from rally end Dominik Brož moved up to fourth place as a consequence, as Wagner’s Sainteloc Junior team-mate Catie Munnings would take fifth. Mattia Vita had retired with broken front left suspension on Friday, but returned on Saturday to claim sixth place in ERC Junior U27.
ERC2: Alonso caps stunning comeback drive with victory
Juan Carlos Alonso turned a 2m53.6s deficit on Thursday evening into victory on Saturday, catching and passing all his rivals in a sensational recovery drive. Alonso had been set back by a fuel pump failure in Thursday’s superspecial, but had already climbed to second place and one minute behind ERC2 leader Seregi Remennik by Friday night. Fifteen seconds had already been made up by Alonso in leg two’s opening test, but a spin into a pair of rocks by Remennik expedited Alonso’s charge up the leaderboard, giving him a lead he would not relinquish. Remennik’s second place nearly disappeared when Russian Performance Motorsport’s ERC2 entrant struck another rock, this time during Tronqueira’s second and final pass. He limped home over four minutes down, but held second regardless. A broken turbo on Thursday had set Luís Pimentel back, but his patience was rewarded with a spot on the podium. Menderes Okur finished fourth aboard his Toksport WRT-prepared Subaru Impreza STI, happy to have finished in what was a learning experience in only his second ERC start. Zelindo Melegari had returned for leg two after retiring on Friday with a broken clutch, but his day came to an end once more, this time caused by an accident during SS13.
ERC Ladies: Molinaro perseveres for class win
Tamara Molinaro did not have the easiest of rallies. A brake problem on Thursday was followed by her Ford Fiesta R5’s engine cutting out occasionally on Frirday morning, and then stoppages in two separate stages which led to four adjusted stage times over the course of leg one. Thick fog on Saturday morning left Molinaro struggling to find her rhythm, and two punctures came later in the day, but she held on to finish after three tricky days of action. Catie Munnings made only her second start on a gravel ERC event, and succeeded in her aim to cover every competitive kilometre to build experience. A lost front bumper on Friday was Munnings’ only major scrape on her way to second in ERC Ladies and fifth in ERC Junior U27. Emma Falcón was unable to return for leg two, pulling out midway through Friday suffering back pain from a heavy landing. Not wanting to take any risks, she will focus on recovering for her home round Rally Islas Canarias in May.