ERC Rally Estonia preview: Flat-out battle in store between the ERC’s best

The top drivers in the FIA European Rally Championship are set to kick off the second half of the 2016 season by fighting for victory on the fast gravel roads of auto24 Rally Estonia next week (15-17 July).

Russian ace Alexey Lukyanuk returns to the scene of his maiden ERC victory 12 months ago with a chance to raise the pressure on defending champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who has just 15 points in hand. Both are likely to have to contend with Ralfs Sirmacis, however, as the Latvian youngster seeks glory close to home. Quick local drivers will look to cause upsets, particularly from within ERC2, and a host of young stars will continue their quest for ERC Junior honours.

The challenge
Although it is one of the newer events in the ERC, auto24 Rally Estonia has quickly become a favourite since joining the calendar in 2014 with high speeds, big jumps and large crowds. It takes place in the south east of the country, based in Otepää but starting and finishing in Tartu, Estonia’s second city. After a 2.95-kilometre Qualifying Stage – from which the fastest 15 drivers will pick their starting positions for leg one – on Friday 15 July, there will be 211.45 kilometres of competitive action over 16 stages, starting with a short city stage in Tartu on Friday evening. Nine stages on Saturday will include two runs of the event’s longest, Rüa at almost 30 kilometres, and conclude with another city stage, this time in Elva. There will be six further stages on Sunday.

The contenders
Kajetan Kajetanowicz (LOTOS Rally Team Ford Fiesta R5):
 Fresh from a strong showing on his WRC debut on Rally Poland and now looking for a first win of his ERC title defence, Kajetanowicz is competing in Estonia for the second time after coming close to victory in 2015.

Alexey Lukyanuk (Ford Fiesta R5): As a former Estonian champion, the spectacular Russian considers this his home event and knows it from before it became part of the ERC. It was the scene of his incredible maiden European champion win last year when he was driving a Group N Mitsubishi.

Ralfs Sirmacis (Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5): The young Latvian won on his top-level ERC debut in Greece earlier this year and will fancy his chances on a rally he knows well, only a stone’s throw from his homeland and where he claimed ERC Junior victory in 2015.

Jaromír Tarabus (T&T Czech National Team ŠKODA Fabia R5): The Czech driver has shown strong form in his Fabia R5 this year, and particularly on gravel with a podium finish on the Acropolis Rally. He’ll be making his second trip to Estonia.

Raul Jeets (Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5): Estonia’s ERC regular finished sixth on his home event in 2015 and will have confidence of bettering that after a top-four finish in Greece in his Fabia, run out of the same ŠKODA Baltic Motorsport awning as Sirmacis.

The challengers
Joining Raul Jeets in flying the flag for Estonia will be world championship regular Sander Pärn (SP Rally Project Ford Fiesta R5), hoping that his home rally is more like 2014, when he won ERC 2WD, and less like 2015, when a shakedown crash forced him to miss the start. WRC2 rival José Antonio Suaréz brings the Peugeot Rally Academy team back to the ERC with a 208 T16. For the first time this year, Polish Fiesta R5 drivers Jarosław Kołtun (C-Rally) and Tomasz Kasperczyk (Tiger Energy Drink Rally Team) compete on an event they already know, looking to improve their season bests of sixth and seventh respectively. Also driving a Fiesta R5 is their compatriot Łukasz Habaj, returning with the car he used to win the Polish title following his domination of ERC3 on Rally Islas Canarias El Corte Inglés. ERC ever-present Antonín Tlusťák will chase a third straight top 10 in his Tlusťák Racing ŠKODA Fabia R5. Young Japanese drivers Hiroki Arai and Takamoto Katsuta, on a training programme with Toyota and Tommi Mäkinen Racing, make their ERC debuts in a pair of Fiesta R5s.

The reward
A total prize fund of 200,000 Euros is on offer to competitors in the ERC again this year. A sum of 20,000 Euros is available at each of the 10 events on the calendar, shared between the seven highest-placed eligible drivers in the final rally classification regardless of category. This year, all drivers that have registered for the ERC will be eligible as long as they are using tyres from one of the championship’s partner suppliers (Michelin and Pirelli). In 2015, 38 ERC drivers earned prize money.

The class acts
The ERC is split into three categories: ERC1 for top-of-the-range R5 machinery, ERC2 for production-based models and ERC3 for two-wheel-drive cars. The ERC Junior Championship takes place on six rounds for drivers born in 1989 or later, competing in R2 machinery on Pirelli tyres.

ERC Junior: Another new winner possible among quick young stars  
There were three different winners in the first three rounds of the ERC Junior Championship, and the points leader Chris Ingram will hope to make it four after a hat-trick of second-places, with fellow ADAC Opel Rallye Junior Team-run Adam R2 driver Marijan Griebel breathing down his neck after breaking his duck in Ypres. Also in Opels are Julius Tannert, third in Ypres, and Łukasz Pieniążek, the Circuit of Ireland class winner. Steve Røkland has entered his Peugeot 208 R2, rebuilt after its crash in Northern Ireland, while Nikolay Gryazin will look to follow Sirmacis by winning in a Sports Racing Technologies 208 R2. Finland’s Joonas Tokee has shown good speed so far in his 208 and Estonia provides similar roads to home. Compatriot Alex Forsström will make his ERC Junior debut in an Opel and has done much of his early rallying in Estonia, although not as much as fellow new entrants, local drivers Miko-Ove Niinemäe (Peugeot) and Gustav Kruuda (Ford Fiesta R2T). Niinemäe came third in ERC Junior on the event last year, while Kruuda, the younger brother of WRC regular Karl, has twice started and finished Rally Estonia despite only being 18. Consistent finishes have put Dominik Brož (Fiesta R2) fourth in the standings, while Marco Cid will look to rebound from engine problems in his Peugeot in Ypres. Kristóf Klausz (208) will head to Estonia after taking sixth on his ERC Junior return in Belgium.

Fast ERC2 locals look to emerge from Lukyanuk’s shadow
The performances of Alexey Lukyanuk in ERC2 machinery in the past two editions of Rally Estonia have disguised the speed of the local drivers. Rainer Aus will no longer have to play second fiddle to the Russian in the class battle, and made the overall podium in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX in 2015. Just behind him was Siim Plangi (Evo X), and Egon Kaur (Evo IX) was also in podium contention before crashing. A fourth Estonian ERC2 entry is Mait Maarend (Evo X), who has also appeared in the top category of the WRC this year. Two Polish Evo X drivers make class debuts; Filip Nivette, who won the most recent round of his national series, and Aron Domżała.

Text and photo: www.fiaerc.com