Monday, 30 September 2019 15:07

Al-Attiyah scores record-extending Cyprus ERC Win

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Cyprus Rally leg two report: 29 September 2019

Nasser Al-Attiyah grabbed a record-extending sixth Cyprus Rally victory on a pivotal day in the battle for FIA European Rally Championship glory.

With Briton Chris Ingram (Toksport WRT) finishing in second place following the disqualification of Simos Galatariotis due to a parc fermé infringement and Russia’s defending champion Alexey Lukyanuk retiring with technical issues, Ingram will take a lead of 18 points to the inaugural Rally Hungary season decider from 8-10 November, when Łukasz Habaj will make it a three-way battle for the title. The Pole, who lost time due to an electrical issue on the closing leg, is back up to second in the standings, six ahead of Lukyanuk in the hunt for European rallying’s top prize.

While the overall ERC title remains firmly up for grabs, Juan Carlos Alonso and Juan Pablo Monasterolo put the ERC2 crown** beyond doubt with a battling drive to fourth in class after brake problems caused the Argentines plenty of anguish in the sweltering Cypriot sunshine.

There was also title success for Efrén Llarena and Sara Fernández in ERC3**, the Spanish federation pair making the most of the opportunity handed to them by the Peugeot Rally Academy to compete in Cyprus for the first time.

Former FIA World Rally Championship star Mikko Hirvonen’s one-off return to the ERC following a 17-year absence netted a fine third overall. Niki Mayr-Melnhof celebrated an ERC-best fifth behind Habaj, Albert von Thurn und Taxis scored a season-high sixth ahead of Chilean ERC rookie Emilio Fernández. Qatar’s Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, four-time Hungarian champion Norbert Herczig and Brazilian Paulo Nobre completed the top 10. Bulgaria’s Ekaterina Stratieva topped the ERC Ladies’ Trophy classification for the Saintéloc Junior Team.

Leg two report: Ingram takes control of ERC title race as Al-Attiyah wins in Cyprus

A trio of stage wins on Sunday morning ensured Nasser Al-Attiyah and Matthieu Baumel had a comfortable gap for the final loop of the rally in their Autotek Motorsport Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.

Alexey Lukyanuk (Saintéloc Junior Team) had been all set for second position, electing to take a steadier approach rather than try to chase after Al-Attiyah. But disaster struck on stage 10, when a technical failure little more than a kilometre from the finish of Kapouras ended his challenge.

That promoted last year’s event winner Simos Galatariotis (Petrolina Racing Team) to a popular second place, the reigning Cypriot champion well behind Al-Attiyah but clear of Chris Ingram (Toksport WRT) until his disqualification. Ingram’s second place was a vital result in light of Lukyanuk’s retirement, giving him an 18-point title advantage over Łukasz Habaj (Sports Racing Technologies).

Habaj had been battling Ingram for fourth position early on in leg two, reducing the gap down to 6.2s after stage eight. But a spin on stage nine cost Habaj half a minute, and his rally got worse from there.

An electrical fault left Habaj unable to use more than 30 per cent throttle on his ŠKODA Fabia R5 during the afternoon loop, costing him nearly two minutes across three stages. To add salt to the wound, his intercom began to fail on Kourdali, the middle stage of the final loop.

Those factors combined dropped him behind Mikko Hirvonen (MM-Motorsport) into what would become fourth place, though he managed to keep the charging Niki Mayr-Melnhof at bay.

Hirvonen’s one-off ERC appearance was about “having fun” and the 15-time World Rally Championship event winner got stuck into Cyprus Rally’s twisty roads, completing an incident-free rally in an eventual third place, a minor brake issue on Saturday his only cause for concern.

Behind Habaj, Mayr-Melnhof finally had a chance to show off his true pace, finishing leg two as the third-fastest driver ahead of both Ingram and Hirvonen. The Austrian had begun Sunday down in P11 after an array of technical woes had slowed his Ford Fiesta R5 on Saturday, but he bounced back emphatically and picked his way up to fifth, finishing only 19.6s behind Habaj.

Albert von Thurn und Taxis (Baumschlager Rallye & Racing) scored his best result of the ERC season with sixth place, ending a run of three retirements in a row by turning in an extremely consistent performance, setting top 10 times on all but the opening stage of the rally.

Emilio Fernàndez (Toksport WRT) clinched seventh place on his Cyprus Rally debut, with Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Norbert Herczig (MOL Racing Team) next up. Al-Kuwari had started the day eighth and at the head of a multi-car midfield battle but fell back to P11, recovering to eighth thanks to problems for others.

One of those drivers was Herczig, who had been going toe-to-toe with Mayr-Melnhof as both rocketed up the leaderboard. But a landing impact broke Herczig’s front driveshaft on stage eight, costing him several minutes and dropping him to the back of the multi-car fight.

Paulo Nobre (Palmeirinha Rally) finished a solid P10 ahead of Tibor Érdi Jr (Érdi Team Kft.). The ŠKODA Fabia R5 pair had begun leg two fighting tooth and nail, at one point separated by just 0.1s, but the battle went decisively in Nobre’s favour when Érdi was delayed by an off into a stream, which resulted in his car’s radiator filling with mud and quickly overheating.

Rakan Al-Rashed (Toksport WRT) joined Lukyanuk on the retirements list but was out even earlier, only making it eight kilometres into the first stage of leg two before a power steering fire ended his rally.

Panteli takes home ERC2 win but valiant Alonso wins title**

Petros Panteli scored his second consecutive Cyprus Rally win in the FIA European Rally Championship’s ERC2 production category, while Juan Carlos Alonso claimed an emotional maiden title* despite completing the whole of leg two with brake issues.

Panteli, from the Q8 Oils Rally Team, was in a class of his own from start to finish, winning all 12 stages to clinch a comfortable triumph. It wasn’t a trouble-free run to victory, as he lacked power at low revs due to a minor camshaft problem, though his lead was never in question.

All eyes though were on the driver in fourth place, Juan Carlos Alonso. A likely podium finish disappeared when a brake problem, which had first appeared late on Saturday, returned on the opening stage of the second leg. Pulling over to try and fix the problem, Alonso lost more than 13 minutes and dropped to fourth, cruising to the finish in first gear with no stopping power from his brake pedal.

While others may have parked the car, Alonso knew that simply reaching the finish would score him enough points to clinch his first ERC2 title, so he pressed on despite having no real means of slowing his car down – at one point even driving into a bank on purpose just to stop his car at a time control.

Midday service failed to remedy the issue and he continued to complete stages over five minutes slower than class leader Panteli. But, crucially, he reached the finish line of the final stage in one piece, clinching the ultimate ERC2 prize. “It’s a very rough weekend for us. We manage with the problem of the brake until the end,” said Alonso. “It’s a dream, you know. We start the season in Azores with a victory and to be here is the prize of all the year of competition and commitment. We are very, very, very happy!”

Antonis Chilimintris hung on to second place despite a rear axle issue on the final loop of the rally, completing the last two stages at an even slower pace than the brake-less Alonso. “The last three stages, since first 2-3 kilometres, we have a broken axle, so we drive very safely because we want to go to the finish,” explained Chilimintris.

Dmitry Feofanov (Sporta Klubs Autostils Rally Team) secured his first ERC2 podium in only his third ERC event, following on from his fourth place on PZM 76th Rally Poland.

Alonso’s cause was aided by the withdrawal of Louis Papageorgiou (SLT Rally Team) before leg two began, ensuring he could finish in fourth at a pedestrian pace to score the required points for title success.

Llarena secures ERC3 title** with Cyprus victory

Efrén Llarena’s successful year of FIA European Rally Championship action got even better on the Cyprus Rally with the Spaniard taking ERC3 victory and with it the class title alongside co-driver Sara Fernández**.

Making a debut appearance with the Peugeot Rally Academy as a reward for his performances in ERC3 Junior with Rallye Team Spain, Llarena picked up where he left off last month after the switch to blue and red colours.

He won eight stages out of 12 on his way to victory, his only real scare coming on leg one when a slow puncture developed halfway through the afternoon pass of Politiko and cost him 12.3s to the chasing Erik Cais (ACCR Czech Rally Team).

Cais took three of the remaining four stage wins and looking increasingly racy on the second day of action, with two of those coming each side of midday service on Sunday. But any hopes of scoring four stage bests in a row to finish the rally were dashed by a gearbox problem on the final loop, which left Cais with only first and second gears to choose from on his Ford Fiesta R2T. “I think the engine is overheating, but the Ford is really strong,” said Cai, complimenting his car despite the gearbox problem.

Despite an, at times, frustrating run Orhan Avcioğlu (Toksport WRT) achieved his goal of a podium finish in ERC3, having spent the first leg down on power with a suspected sensor issue. A one-minute penalty for a technical infringement had dropped him to only 0.4s ahead of Florian Bernardi but he swiftly pulled away over Sunday’s six stages. Avcioğlu capped his first podium finish of the season with a stage win on the Nicosia superspecial on Saturday.

Bernardi, a sealed-surface specialist, came to Cyprus as a learning experience and banked fourth place for his persistence, though ultimately fell short of his aim to win the ERC3 title due to Llarena’s victory. “It’s great to finish the rally, it was very difficult for me,” said Bernardi. “In the second stage of this loop we had a puncture, so now I just wanted to finish!”

There was late drama in the battle for fifth position, as a technical issue struck the older-spec Fiesta R2 of Constantinos Televantos (Q8 Oils Rally Team). The sole remaining Cypriot in the ERC3 running order was nearly seven minutes off the pace on the afternoon rerun of Kourdali, dropping him to sixth behind Ekaterina Stratieva (Saintéloc Junior Team).

Stratieva scored her best-ever ERC3 finish with fifth place and equalled her best ERC 2WD result on the 2013 Tour de Corse. Most importantly she picked up a substantial 70 points for the ERC Ladies’ classification, putting her second in the title race and only 14 points behind current leader Nabila Tejpar. Litsa Yiangou, whose son Panayiotis finished P18 in the overall ERC rally classification, picked up a second-place trophy in the ERC Ladies’ category, piloting a Subaru Impreza.

PROVISIONAL TOP 10 POSITIONS (after 12 stages, 105.62 kilometres)

1 Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 3h02m51.3s

2 Chris Ingram (GBR)/Ross Whittock (GBR) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +3m5.9s

3 Mikko Hirvonen (FIN)/Jarmo Ottman (FIN) Ford Fiesta R5 +4m34.0s

4 Łukasz Habaj (PLN)/Daniel Dymurski (PLN) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +5m43.4s

5 Niki Mayr-Melnhof (AUT)/Poldi Welsersheimb (AUT) Ford Fiesta R5 +6m03.0s

6 Albert von Thurn und Taxis (DEU)/Bernhard Ettel (AUT) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +7m01.5s

7 Emilio Fernández (CHL)/Axel Coronado (ESP) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +8m07.7s

8 Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Marshall Clarke (GBR) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +8m50.8s

9 Norbert Herczig (HUN)/Ramón Ferenc (HUN) Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 +9m26.3s

10 Paulo Nobre (BRA)/Gabriel Morales (BRA) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +11m21.5s ...

FIA ERC2: Petros Panteli (CYP)/ Kyprianos Christodoulou (CYP) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X

FIA ERC3: Efrén Llarena (ESP)/Sara Fernández (ESP) Peugeot 208 R2

ERC Ladies’ Trophy: Ekaterina Stratieva (BGR) Peugeot 208 R2

What’s next? Round 8 of 8, Rally Hungary, 8-10 November: Hungary will return to the ERC for the first time since 2003 with a new Tarmac event in Nyíregyháza, northeast Hungary, approximately two hours 30 minutes by car from the capital Budapest. While the event was effectively brand new for 2018 when it ran as the Nyíregyháza Rally and counted as the Hungarian championship closer, Nyíregyháza was a regular host of national-level events in the 1980s. With several Hungarian drivers contesting the ERC each season – including back-to-back ERC2 champion Tibor Érdi Jr – a Hungarian round of the championship is perfectly timed. Government and local authority support are other plus points.

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