Alexey Lukyanuk leads round four of the FIA European Rally Championship after snatching the initiative from Kajetan Kajetanowicz at the end of a fascinating duel through day two of the spectacular Azores Airlines Rallye.
Russian driver Lukyanuk had signalled his intent at the start of the day when he won Pico de Pedra Golfe 1 to shoot from third to first, only for Kajetanowicz to fight back on a foggy Feteiras MEO test to reclaim the lead. The Pole then won the famous Sete Cidades stage to end the morning loop with 12.2 seconds in hand over his rival.
Despite it being his first time competing in the Azores, Lukyanuk was unbeatable on the repeat loop in the afternoon, bringing the lead down to 6.7s prior to the second run through Sete Cidades. There, both drivers hit a bank on the long and challenging stage but Kajetanowicz damaged his suspension geometry and dropped 16.5s to his rival. It means that Lukyanuk takes a 9.8s advantage over his fellow Pirelli-equipped Ford Fiesta R5 driver into the final day.
Having been well within the lead fight on the opening day, multiple Azorean champion Ricardo Moura lacked the confidence to keep up with the two ERC title contenders in his MICHELIN-supplied Fiesta and has slipped to 40s off the lead. He is however on course for a third podium in four events at home, with 24.3s in hand over Ralfs Sirmaics. The recently-turned 22-year-old Latvian began the day just one second behind leader Kajetanowicz in his Sports Racing Technologies-run ŠKODA Fabia R5, but was left unhappy with his pacenotes and tyre choices in varying weather conditions.
The battle for fifth place has remained open between a number of drivers, but it has been headed since the end of the morning by the 2014 Portuguese champion Pedro Meireles in a ŠKODA and his successor José Pedro Fontes, who shot up from 10th to sixth with a great time on the first run through Sete Cidades in his Citroën Vodafone Team DS3 R5. They are split by 15.8s, and Dávid Botka is only a further 12.4s behind and enjoying by far his cleanest run yet in the DS3 he is driving in 2016 after winning the ER2 title last season. He does only have 1.9s in hand over Jaroslav Orsák though, with the Czech driver producing a great first drive in his brand new Ford Fiesta R5.
Raul Jeets has grown in confidence on his first trip to the Azores in the second SRT ŠKODA, climbing from 19th to ninth during the day with a pair of top-five stage times at the end. Antonín Tlusťák remains in the top 10 in his Fabia ahead of local driver Luís Rego, who was delayed by a puncture on the first running of Sete Cidades. After running first on the road all day, Miguel Barbosa is 12th ahead of Ricardo Teodósio, who found top-10 pace in the final two stages.
Despite battling a fever, Jarosław Kołtun is within reach of a fourth top-10 place from as many events in 14th ahead of Carlos Vieira, who had a number of adventures in his Citroën. Following a spin on SS6, seven-time event winner Fernando Peres slipped back to 16th, while Giacomo Costenaro had to do the latter half of the second run through Sete Cidades without power steering on his Peugeot 208 T16.
João Barros had been sixth when he crashed out on the first run over Sete Cidades, one stage after fellow Portuguese driver Joaquim Alves went off. Compatriots Diogo Salvi and Carlos Martins were forced out by mechanical issues.
Chuchała woe rewards rapid Rodrigues with ERC2 lead
Wojciech Chuchała seemed to be coasting towards a fourth ERC2 win from as many starts, holding a 44s advantage over Ruben Rodrigues even though the local Mitsubishi driver was fastest through the first four stages of the day. Chuchała, who said he had been in “safe mode” to preserve his advantage, then found some speed on SS9, only to suffer a puncture on his Subaru Poland Rally Team Impreza early in the final test. Forced to stop and change it, he was then held up further after ERC1 driver Carlos Vieira had passed him but then gone off the road and rejoined ahead. Rodrigues now leads ERC2 by 1m12.7s over Chuchała, who has both Pedro Vale and Juan Carlos Alonso within 14s of him as they fight for a podium. Rui Moniz had been well within that fight before an accident on SS6.
Griebel leads after a dramatic day in ERC Junior
Marijan Griebel led ERC Junior at the start and the end of day two, but at no point in-between. Portuguese Peugeot pilot Diogo Gago sped back ahead of the ADAC Opel Rallye Junior Team driver on the first stage of the day, before Chris Ingram won the next two stages in his Opel to take a lead that stood at 20s thanks to a stunning time over Sete Cidades. However, the British driver (who took his first and only ERC Junior win in the Azores last year) later suffered a puncture on SS9 that cost him nearly 40s and dropped him back to third. Gago briefly reclaimed the lead, but Griebel ended the day 4.5s ahead. A careful approach from Circuit of Ireland category winner Łukasz Pieniążek has seen him climb to fourth, but debutant Joonas Tokee is only 3.8s behind despite losing his brakes and clutch respectively over the two Sete Cidades stages. Steve Røkland is also close behind even though he had to stop with engine issues on SS7. Marco Cid and Dominik Brož round out the remaing runners, with Julius Tannert stopping out of fourth place on the last stage of the day with problems on his Opel and Nikolay Gryazin ripping a wheel from his Peugeot on the first Sete Cidades stage.
Gil Antunes remains the best non-ERC Junior driver in ERC3, holding seventh place ahead of Paulo Neto. Renato Pita retired after a number of mechanical issues on his Ford Fiesta R2T.
The rally concludes on Saturday with six more stages and 102.76 kilometres of competitive action. Between two runs over Graminhais and Tronqueira – each lasting over 20 kilometres – the Grupo Marques superspecial and Vila Franca São Bras stage from Thursday will be revisited.
MEDIA EVENTS AND INFORMATION (all timings local for Saturday 4 June)
Prize-giving ceremony: 19h10, Podium, Praça Gonçalo Velho
Post-event press conference: 19h35, Podium, Praça Gonçalo Velho
Colin McRae ERC Flat Out Trophy presentation: Immediately following the post-event press conference, Podium, Praça Gonçalo Velho
THE ERC IS PROMOTED BY EUROSPORT EVENTS LTD, DISCOVERY HOUSE, 566 CHISWICK HIGH ROAD, LONDON W4 5YB, UK. TEL: +44 2036813000, F +44 2036813250. REGISTERED IN ENGLAND & WALES UNDER NO. 4361881 VAT NO. GB 792 1320 40