Kajetan Kajetanowicz leads the Azores Airlines Rallye by just 1.1 seconds after a thrilling opening section of the FIA European Rally Championship opener.
Two-time ERC champion Kajetanowicz is engaged in an intense duel with his regular rival Alexey Lukyanuk after four stages, while local hero and 2016 rally winner Ricardo Moura has also held the lead on the first afternoon.
Russian driver Lukyanuk had been fastest on SS1, a new mixed-surface test at Lagoa that was broadcast live online. Moura then edged out Kajetanowicz by one tenth of a second to win SS2 to take the lead, repeating a feat he achieved at the same point last year.
On SS3, it was Lukyanuk’s turn to beat Kajetanowicz by just 0.1s, but the Pole struck back on the televised fan-favourite Grupo Marques superspecial. There, he outpaced Lukyanuk by two seconds to move ahead overall by 1.1s.
“This was our plan!” said Ford Fiesta R5 driver Kajetanowicz about snatching the lead on SS4. “It’s a great stage for spectators. We were sliding a lot, we were trying to push. It’s big fun, this is an important stage for the rally. I’m more happy with winning this stage than with leading. We have a long rally, we will see tomorrow.”
Lukyanuk, also driving a Fiesta, said: “So far, so good. We have enjoyed really good weather today. It’s exciting, so close with Kajto.”
Moura, another Ford driver, was nine seconds slower than the lead duo on SS3 – the longest test of the day – despite being best of the rest. Although admitting that keeping up with Kajetanowicz and Lukyanuk is proving difficult, he is only 13.8s off the lead overnight.
As in 2016, Ralfs Sirmacis is hanging on to the three in front. The young Latvian was seventh after SS2, but second-place on SS4 brought him up into fourth past fellow Skoda Fabia R5 driver Bruno Magalhães. Although he is a two-time winner of the event in the past, Magalhães was surprised by his performance on his first gravel rally for 15 months in an unfamiliar car. Both he and Sirmacis are less than 20s away from the lead, and Magalhães is keeping the pressure on Moura for the Portuguese national championship win.
Sirmacis leads the brand new ERC Junior U28 category, 4.6s ahead of his Sports Racing Technologies team-mate Nikolay Gryazin. The 19-year-old Russian-born driver was an impressive second on SS1, and holds sixth overall at the end of the day, just 0.6s in front of Marijan Griebel. The German, the reigning ERC Junior champion, was 12th on SS1 after getting his Skoda too sideways but recovered well.
José Suárez is eighth in his Peugeot Rally Academy 208 T16 and only 23.7s off the lead. Jan Černý is ninth and 10th is Josh Moffett, who ran last of the 28 top-of-the-range R5 cars during the opening set of stages after spinning in the earlier Quaifying Stage.
Sergei Remennik leads the production-based ERC2 class in his Mitsubishi, while Chris Ingram has a narrow 2.9-second advantage over Opel team-mate Jari Huttunen in ERC Junior U27.
SS3 proved to be a challenging stage for many drivers. Dávid Botka was inside the top 10 before suffering a brake issue on his Citroen, while Spanish youngster Pepe Lopéz got his Peugeot stuck in third gear. Murat Bostanci damaged his Ford’s rear suspension, and Manuel Castro had the bonnet on his Hyundai fly open.
Leg one concludes on Friday with eight stages, starting with Pico de Pedra Golfe at begin at 10h43 local time.
SS1 Lagoa (15h21, 2.14km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS2 Solucoes M (15h40, 7.08km): Moura/Costa (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS3 Vila Franca Sao Bras 1 (16h25, 13.47km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS4 Grupo Marques SSS 1 (17h22, 3.95km): Kajetanowicz/Baran (Ford Fiesta R5)
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