Alexey Lukyanuk will lead the Azores Airlines Rallye into the final day despite an eventful Friday afternoon as an impressive Bruno Magalhães closed the gap in second place.
Lukyanuk had opened up a 40-second advantage during the morning after rival and overnight leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz crashed out inside the day’s first two kilometres, but the Russian lost half of that margin through a puncture on the first test of the afternoon.
There was further drama for the leader on the second run over the famous Sete Cidades stage that rounded out the day when he hit a wall after a jump, losing the rear window of his Ford Fiesta R5 in the impact.
He ended the day with a lead of 27.8s over Magalhães, who won the final two stages of the day to climb above Azorean hero Ricardo Moura and into second place. On Saturday, Lukyanuk will hope to go one better than in 2016 when he lost the rally lead on the final day on his debut on São Miguel island.
Speaking about his afternoon, Lukyanuk said: “My slogan for this rally is ‘no drama, no fun’. Everything is fine, we are at the finish line for today with a good, healthy lead. We lost 20 seconds with the puncture in the first stage. No big mistakes and I’m happy to be here. Everything is more or less under control.”
A two-time winner of the rally in the past, Magalhães is contesting his first gravel event for 15 months and is doing so in a new car, a Skoda Fabia R5, but this has not held him back.
“After one year-and-a-half without driving on gravel – and in the last year I’ve only done one rally – it’s perfect for me,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be honest, but the car is very good. We are working very well, me and the team, and now I’m getting the confidence and I’m very, very happy. To hold on to second I need to push because Ricardo is very fast.”
Moura, who beat Lukyanuk to the win in 2016, suffered in the afternoon after a puncture on SS8 forced him to fit a used spare to his Fiesta for the rest of the loop. This meant he slipped to six seconds behind Magalhães going into the final day, with the pair fighting for Portuguese championship honours.
The battle for the first win in the new ERC Junior U28 category is even closer, with just 2.8s between Skoda drivers Nikolay Gryazin and Marijan Griebel in fourth and fifth overall. Gryazin took a first stage win on SS8 ahead of Griebel, but lost around 15 seconds relative to the German on Sete Cidades where he made contact with the earth banks that line the narrow stage around a volcano crater lake.
Griebel showed strong speed after a morning puncture and took fifth from José Suárez when the Peugeot driver crashed on SS10 and lost in excess of six minutes. That allowed Josh Moffett to climb into sixth place – and third in ERC Junior U28 – ahead of Jan Černý. Carlos Vieira, Łukasz Habaj and Pedro Meireles round out the overnight top 10. Ralfs Sirmacis fell to 13th after suffering his third puncture of the day on SS10.
Things are also closely-fought in ERC Junior U27 between Opel team-mates Chris Ingram and Jari Huttunen. Ingram has led from the start, but his margin over Huttunen – making his debut in the Azores and in the European championship – was as little as 0.7s after SS8, before he increased that to 4.7s on SS10. Sergei Reminnik continues to lead the production-based ERC2 category.
The final day of the Azores Airlines Rallye features six stages, the first of which will be Graminhais at 10h08. That and the Tronqueira stage will both be run twice, with repeats of Thursday’s Grupo Marques superspecial and Vila Franca São Brás stages inbetween. The podium is scheduled for 18h56 in Ponta Delgada.
SS1 Lagoa (2.14km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS2 Solucoes M (7.08km): Moura/Costa (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS3 Vila Franca Sao Bras 1 (13.47km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS4 Grupo Marques SSS 1 (3.95km): Kajetanowicz/Baran (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS5 Pico da Pedra Golfe 1 (7.02km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS6 Feteiras Meo 1 (7.466km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS7 Sete Cidades 1 (25.62km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS8 Pico da Pedra Golfe 2 (7.02km): Gryazin/Fedorov (Skoda Fabia R5)
SS9 Feteiras Meo 2 (7.466km): Magalhães/Magalhães (Skoda Fabia R5)
SS10 Sete Cidades 2 (25.62km): Magalhães/Magalhães (Skoda Fabia R5)