Another intense battle for victory in the FIA European Rally Championship is in store next week (2-4 June) on round four of the 2016 season, the always-spectacular Azores Airlines Rallye.
The first three events produced three different winners in three different cars, with a thrilling fight for top spot lasting well into the final day every time. The Azores promises more of the same, with established rivals Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Alexey Lukyanuk up against new sensation Ralfs Sirmacis once more. A strong Portugese contingent contributes to a field containing a superb 27 R5 cars. The event is also round two of the ERC Junior Championship, which boasts a number of potential winners.
Based on São Miguel, the largest island in the mid-Atlantic archipelago, the rally was first run in 1965 and first included in the ERC schedule in 1992, returning three years ago. Drivers are attracted from far and wide by breathtaking scenery and challenging stages. The 2016 edition features 16 stages over 215.53 kilometres, with 89% on gravel and 11% on asphalt. A City Show in Ponta Delgada on Wednesday evening precedes Thursday’s 3.12-kilometre Qualifying Stage for ERC registered drivers, from which the fastest 15 will choose their starting order for the first leg. That begins with four stages at the end of the same day and continues with another six tests on Friday, including two passes over the rally’s longest stage, the famous Sete Cidades that runs partly around the rim of an extinct volcano. The rally concludes after a further six stages on Saturday.
José Pedro Fontes (Citroën Vodafone Team DS3 R5): As the reigning national champion and current points leader, Fontes is one of the standouts from a large Portuguese contingent. He knows the Azores well and will look to build on his sixth place there in 2015.
Kajetan Kajetanowicz (LOTOS Rally Team Ford Fiesta R5): The Pole has made a good start to his ERC title defence in terms of scoring points, but is yet to win in 2016. Having lost out in a close fight with Craig Breen in the Azores last year, he’ll hope to go one better this time.
Alexey Lukyanuk (Ford Fiesta R5): The man who won on Rally Islas Canarias has had a challenging time since then, but his speed on gravel isn’t in doubt. Unlike his main opposition, he is new to the Azores, but such inexperience hasn’t stopped him before.
Ricardo Moura (Ford Fiesta R5): While there are many Portuguese drivers in attendance, Moura is one of the bona fide locals, having been born in Ponta Delgada. He finished third on home soil as part of the ERC in both 2013 and 2015, and won an eighth straight Azorean title last year.
Ralfs Sirmacis (Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5): Following his shock win at his top-class debut on a first visit to Greece, can the Latvian (who turns 22 on the Sunday before the rally) produce a repeat on an event he experienced as part of the ERC Junior series in 2015?
Reigning ERC2 champion Dávid Botka will hope for an upturn in fortunes in his Botka Rally Team DS3 R5 after a tough start to life in the top category. Raul Jeets (Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5) makes his Azores debut off the back of a career-best fourth in Greece, with Polish Ford Fiesta R5 drivers Jarosław Kołtun (C-Rally) and Tomasz Kasperczyk (Tiger Energy Drink Rally Team) in similarly good spirits after finishing sixth and seventh respectively on the Acropolis. Giacomo Costenaro (Peugeot 208 T16) makes his second appearance of the season on an event he knows relatively well, rather like the ever-present Antonín Tlusťák (Tlusťák Racing Fabia R5), whose fellow Czech driver Jaroslav Orsák is on the ERC comeback trail in a brand new Kimi Racing-entered Fiesta R5, following almost a year away. Promising Norwegian Frank Tore Larsen makes a long-awaited ERC debut in another Fiesta R5. Among the 13 Portuguese drivers in R5 cars are Pedro Meireles, Miguel Barbosa and Diogo Salvi in Fabias and Carlos Martins and Carlos Vieira in DS3s. Fernando Peres, winner of 10 ERC qualifiers from 1993-2003 and a seven-time Azores victor, drives a Fiesta, as do Luís Miguel Rego (the 2014 production class winner stepping up to R5 for the first time), João Barros, Joaquim Alves, Elias Barros and Ricardo Teodósio. Manuel Castro will be in the sole Super 2000 car, a ŠKODA Fabia.
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: Pieniążek leads fellow young stars onto gravel
Łukasz Pieniążek leads the ERC Junior standings after his Circuit of Ireland win, and will start as a favourite for Azores glory along with factory-backed fellow Opel Adam R2 drivers Marijan Griebel, Julius Tannert and Chris Ingram, who won the class on this event in 2015. Second back then, Diogo Gago now returns to ERC Junior, joining fellow Peugeot 208 R2 driver Marco Cid in flying the Portuguese flag at home. The third-placed driver last year, Steve Røkland, switches to an M-Sport run Ford Fiesta R2T after attracting the British firm’s support. Fast Russian Nikolay Gryazin (Sports Racing Technologies 208 R2), Czech youngster Dominik Brož (Fiesta R2) and Finnish debutant Joonas Tokee (208 R2) complete the ERC Junior field.
Chuchała goes for four from four in ERC2
Wojciech Chuchała will chase a fourth win from as many ERC2 starts in his Subaru Poland Rally Team Impreza STI. Taking him on will be Argentina’s Juan Carlos Alonso (Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X) as well as two Portuguese drivers, Ruben Rodrigues (Lancer Evolution IX) and Pedro Vale (Impreza STI), who took third and fourth respectively in class on this event two years ago.
Portuguese quartet add to ERC3 battle
Four drivers from Portugal will join the ERC Junior contenders in the ERC3 class. They include two that are making second ERC appearances of 2016: Gil Antunes (Renault Clio R3T) and Renato Pita (Ford Fiesta R2T). José Monteiro is another driving a Clio R3T, while Paulo Neto pilots a Citroën DS3 R3T.
Text and photo: www.fiaerc.com