Young Latvian Ralfs Sirmacis will hope to add a victory on home soil to his impressive first season at the top level of the FIA European Rally Championship on Rally Liepāja next weekend (16-18 September).
The event will begin a new era as a pure gravel rally following a rescheduling from February, when it was due to run as a winter contest only for a lack of snow to force its postponement, but that’s unlikely to phase 22-year-old Sirmacis: already a winner in Greece and Estonia within his first four starts in top-line R5 machinery. He’ll be able to drive without championship pressure, unlike Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who is on the brink of successfully defending his ERC title.
One crown that will definitely be decided in Latvia is the FIA ERC Junior Championship, with Opel team-mates Chris Ingram and Marijan Griebel both entering the deciding round knowing a win will secure them the spoils and a prize drive in an R5 car on the season-closing Cyprus Rally next month.
Rally Liepāja has been part of the ERC since its first edition in 2013 but there’s a big change for this year, with temperatures forecast around 20°C instead of the usual snow and ice after mild weather at the start of the year forced a rescheduling from February to September. The rally will continue on pure gravel in the ERC until at least 2019 following a recent contract extension. After the Qualifying Stage and start order selection on Friday 16 September, there will be 13 stages and 203.6 competitive kilometres, focused around Kuldīga for Saturday’s first five stages before a return to Liepāja for two runs around a city stage at the new Great Amber concert hall. The rally concludes with six more tests on Sunday.
Ralfs Sirmacis (Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5): It was on his home round where Sirmacis first made his name in the ERC, and the four-time Latvian class champion is sure to feel at home on the gravel roads, which will be similar in their high-speed nature to Estonia.
Kajetan Kajetanowicz (LOTOS Rally Team Ford Fiesta R5): With a 76-point advantage in the standings, just three points in Latvia will be enough to secure his second title, but as was proved in the Czech Republic when he suffered an engine issue, nothing is guaranteed.
Alexey Lukyanuk (Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X): Retains a slim title chance heading to Latvia despite minor but costly damage incurred at the end of his last two events. Tight for budget, he’s swapped his R5 Fiesta for his ERC2 Mitsubishi, but won when he last did that in Estonia in 2015.
Frank Tore Larsen (Ford Fiesta R5): The promising Norwegian would have loved to have competed on snow in Latvia but is quick on gravel too, and makes a second ERC start following several top-five stage times in the Azores in June and a recent rally win at home.
Raul Jeets (Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5): With two fourth-place finishes under his belt already this season, the team-mate to Sirmacis in the ŠKODA Baltic Motorsport-backed SRT operation will hope he can transfer his form from home nation Estonia across the border.
Polish champion Łukasz Habaj recently abandoned his domestic campaign to further his skills on the ERC, and in particular improve on gravel events like Rally Liepāja. The Rallytechnology driver may well battle with compatriot and fellow Ford Fiesta R5 driverJarosław Kołtun of C-Rally. Tomasz Kasperczyk meanwhile will hope to make further progress after a strong home run on Rally Rzeszow in his Tiger Energy Drink Rally Team Fiesta. Reigning ERC2 champion Dávid Botka will hope for a repeat of his fourth place in the Azores after another run of bad luck in his Citroën DS3 R5. After a good finish in Zlín, Belgium’s Cédric Cherain makes the trip to Latvia in another Fiesta R5 to continue his build-up to the bigger ERC programme he hopes to embark on next season. Local ŠKODA Fabia R5 driver Raimonds Kisiels returns for an event he finished seventh on two years ago.
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: Winner takes it all, but others eye an upset
After his win in Zlín, Chris Ingram has a 31-point lead over title rival and Opel team-mate Marijan Griebel going into the deciding round, but with the best four out of six scores counting, that advantage comes down to 14 and either driver could guarantee themselves the title – and a prize drive in an R5 car on the Cyprus Rally – with a maximum score. However, with a strong entry, their battle could well be interrupted, perhaps by 18-year-old Nikolay Gryazin who competes under the Latvian flag for the local Sports Racing Technologies squad and sat ahead of the Opel duo in second place in Estonia before a spectacular roll in his Peugeot 208 R2. The winner then was Estonian Miko Niinemäe, who returns in his 208. Łukasz Pieniążek holds third in the standings but faces competition from fellow Opel Adam R2 driver Julius Tannert as well as Gryazin and Czech driver Dominik Brož (Ford Fiesta R2). Niinemäe is joined in returning by compatriot Gustav Kruuda – who won leg two in Estonia after getting up to speed in his new Fiesta R2T – and Finns Joonas Tokee (208) and Alex Forsström (Adam) as well as Brit Catie Munnings (208). The field is completed by Hungarian Kristóf Klausz (208) and 16-year-old local Mārtiņš Sesks (208) whose father is the Mayor of Liepāja and steps up from the ERC Junior Experience, which helped him win the two-wheel drive class in the Rally Estonia national event. The Juniors are joined in ERC3 by Turkish champion Murat Bostanci (Fiesta R2T), Hungarian Szabolcs Várkonyi (208) and Russia’s Artur Muradian (Renault Clio R3).
ERC2 gets Lukyanuk, leaders and locals in Latvia
Rally Liepāja would have perhaps the strongest ERC2 field of the season even if Alexey Lukyanuk had not switched to his Mitsubishi. The top three in the standings – Wojciech Chuchała, Giacomo Scattolon and Tibor Érdi – are all present. Subaru Poland Rally Team driver Chuchała faces a tough task to continue his 100 per cent record, but can clinch the title if he maintains his advantage over Ypres and Zlín winner Scattolon. There’s also a strong local contingent including 2014 winner Jānis Vorobjovs and Māris Neikšāns, who contests the rally in the driver’s seat for the first time, while Estonia’s Siim Plangi is always fast, finishing second overall on the event last year.
Text and photo: www.fiaerc.com