Round six of the FIA European Rally Championship, auto24 Rally Estonia, has begun with a short but action-packed street stage in the city of Tartu, with Alexey Lukyanuk claiming an early lead.
In front of large and enthusiastic crowds, Russian driver Lukyanuk completed the 1.33-kilometre auto24 Tartu city test in a time of 1m04.5s, 1.9 seconds faster than nearest rival Ralfs Sirmacis of Latvia. Lukyanuk, who scored his first ERC win on Rally Estonia last year, said: “It’s an amazing stage, short but really nice, we can slide on the cobblestones.”
The opening stage might have been short in length but there was plenty of drama, including for the defending ERC champion and current points leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz. First into the stage as the top seed, the LOTOS Rally Team ace dropped 7.5s to fellow Pirelli-shod Ford Fiesta R5 driver Lukyanuk with a mistake on the technical course, leaving him 14th overnight. His fellow Polish driver Tomasz Kasperczyk got into even greater difficulty, breaking the right-rear suspension on his Fiesta when he took the first corner too quickly and smacked a kerb, losing 20 seconds.
Earlier in the day, the drivers registered for the ERC took part in the Qualifying Stage, with Lukyanuk fastest over the 2.95-kilometre gravel stage. He was only a quarter of a second quicker than MICHELIN-equipped ŠKODA Fabia R5 driver Sirmacis and half a second faster than Kajetanowicz however, demonstrating how close the margins between the top three in the ERC standings could be over the high-speed stages this weekend.
The fastest drivers in the Qualifying Stage then took part in the start selection ceremony in Tartu Town Hall Square, going in turn to choose their position in the road order for Saturday’s stages. With a lower start position beneficial on the gravel roads, Lukyanuk selected 14th position. Estonian ERC2 driver Mait Maarend will run first on the road.
ERC regular Jaromír Tarabus was not classified in the Qualifying Stage after picking up a large rock in the front of his Fabia, causing it to overheat, but he was back in action to take third on the first stage of the rally. Behind him were three local drivers, with top ERC2 drivers Rainer Aus and Siim Plangi split by one tenth of a second and followed closely by Raul Jeets.
Rally Estonia is round four of the ERC Junior Championship open to drivers born in 1989 or later, and Estonian driver Miko-Ove Niinemäe was fastest in the first stage in front of Hungary’s Kristóf Klausz and the works-supported Opel trio of Julius Tannert, Marijan Griebel and points leader Chris Ingram.
Leg one resumes on Saturday with nine stages totalling 129.14 kilometres. Most of these take place over fast gravel tracks, but there will be another short spectator stage in the town of Elva to close out the day.