With four different winners from four stages and 1.0s separating the first two drivers in the provisional standings, the 51st running of the spectacular event on the mid-Atlantic archipelago is shaping up to be another epic with 12 stages remaining.
Following the City Show demonstration event in Ponta Delgada on Wednesday evening, the serious competition began on Thursday morning with the 3.12-kilometre Qualifying Stage. Alexey Lukyanuk was fastest and got the pick of the road positions, selecting 15th for Thursday’s four timed tests in an effort to capitalise on a road surface swept clean of loose surface gravel by his rivals running further up the order.
However, it proved a tough start for Azores Airlines Rallye debutant Lukyanuk when he slid wide into a bank on a left-hander on SS1 and bent the right-rear suspension of his Fiesta in the process. There were no such problems for Kajetanowicz, who was quickest on SS1 in his similar Ford Fiesta R5, before Lukyanuk hit back with the best time on SS3 following rapid repairs by the roadside.
Local hero Ricardo Moura took the lead from Kajetanowicz after winning SS2. However, a hesitant run through SS3 cost him valuable seconds and he slipped back to second in the overall standings with Ralfs Sirmacis third and Lukyanuk fourth heading to the Grupo Marques superspecial where heavy rain made conditions treacherous.
Latvian Sirmacis was fastest through the stage in his Skoda Fabia R5 and took advantage of grip issues for Kajetanowicz to cut the Pole’s advantage to 1.0s, while Moura and Lukyanuk both reported problems: Moura struggled for grip on his harder compound tyres, while Lukyanuk bumped the rear of his Fiesta against a bank.
“It was tricky and hard to drive through that final stage when the tyres have lost their grip,” said Kajetanowicz, the reigning ERC champion, who was running P12 on the road. “It’s been a short but hard day and difficult for us but this is life, this is rally.”
Moura, who arrived back in Ponta Delgada this evening 10.5s behind Kajetanowicz in fourth overall, said: “The first two stages were good for me but my driving was not good on the third. In the last stage I was on the harder tyre and in the rain I took no risks to go home safely. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.”
David Botka is fifth overnight, Antonin Tlustak sixth, Fernando Peres seventh, Pedro Meireles eighth, Joao Barros ninth followed by local driver Luis Rego, who was running first on the road on his debut in an R5 car following a successful career in production-based machinery. Wojciech Chuchala holds a comfortable advantage in the ERC2 category. After three stages, Marijan Griebel led Diogo Gago by 1.6s.
It’s proved a tough day for Portuguese championship leader Jose Pedro Fontes, who lost time with a down-on-power engine in his Citroen. Jaroslav Orsak suffered a front-left puncture on SS1, where Raul Jeets and Jaroslaw Koltun both picked up minor bodywork damage due to contact. ERC newcomer Frank Tore Larsen was sixth overall when he went off the road on SS3.
Leg one resumes on Friday with the first of six stages, Pico de Pedra Golfe, scheduled to begin at 10h45 local time.
Stage times and results:
SS1 Batalha (15h57): Kajetanowicz/Baran (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS2 Solucoes M (16h20): Moura/Costa (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS3 Vila Franca Sao Bras 1 (17h05): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS4 Grupo Marques SSS 1 (18h02): Sirmacis/Simins (Skoda Fabia R5