Andrea Crugnola sets Rally di Roma pace as ERC stars suffer

The Italian won every stage across Friday and Saturday on his home ERC round

FIA European Rally Championship 2023 Stop 6 – Rome, Italy

Andrea Crugnola leads Rally di Roma Capitale by 20.2 seconds at the halfway point, as the European Rally Championship’s leading contenders all hit trouble.

The event began on Friday night with the short but visually spectacular Colosseum stage in Rome, and Crugnola only took 57.2 seconds to complete the 1.3-kilometer (0.80-mile) test. He was fastest by 0.3s over Alexey Lukyanuk – the Russian embarking on his first rally since 2021. The top five was split by 0.9s.

Crugnola was fastest again on the first stage of Saturday, the 11.72km (7.30-mile) blast between the picturesque towns of Guarcino and Altipiani di Arcinazzo, and this time by 1.5s over fellow Citroën C3 Rally2 driver Yoann Bonato.

Giandomenico Basso, the winner of the rally in 2019 and ’21, was third fastest and four seconds off Crugnola’s pace. Points leader Hayden Paddon was surprised to be only 0.7s slower than him, on his first ever visit to the Italian stages.

Giandomenico BASSO

Lauri Joona was one of several drivers making their Tarmac rally debut in their current cars – something which showed in their struggle for pace. Joona still found it a “good experience” and enjoyed the stage.

Running earlier on the road appeared advantageous, but experience also counted and particularly on the Rocca di Cave – Subiaco stage that followed. At close to 20 miles, and run in sunny conditions, managing engine and tire temperatures was crucial. It was also a tough one in the cockpit for the crews, particularly the co-drivers. As Joona’s co-driver Janni Hussi revealed: 47 pages of pacenotes were read from start to finish.

Crugnola was quickest again, beating the times set on the stage in last year’s rally and adding 5.4s to his lead over Bonato.

Basso used his immense experience to go third fastest, 1.5s slower than Bonato. Paddon was fourth again. Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 driver Filip Mareš climbed into ninth overall but was not happy as he suffered in the second half of the stage and struggled to keep to the optimal line. But his time, 21.6s off the pace, was “not a disaster”.

FIA European Rally Championship 2023 Stop 6 - Rome, Italy

Mathieu Franceschi, another of ERC’s frontrunners, had similar struggles to Mareš once into the second half of the lengthy stage. The Frenchman started sliding on his overheating tires and also found the brakes on his Škoda increasingly ineffective as temperatures soared. He dropped 35s, and just 0.2s faster was Alberto Battistolli (Škoda), whose co-driver Simone Scattolin felt like he was in “a long sauna with overalls on” due to the heat.

The morning loop concluded with the comparative dash from Affile to Bellegra, and Crugnola extended his unbeaten run. This time Basso was his closest rival, 1.6s off the pace, with Lukyanuk and Mareš a further 0.2s back.

The story of the hour was, however, news of a huge crash for Mārtiņš Sesks. The MRF driver arrived in Fuiggi second in the standings – but wouldn’t be adding to that tally this weekend. The Latvian understeered his Fabia into bank, ran into another one and flipped. He and co-driver Renārs Francis emerged unscathed.

The stage was stopped after only three crews had reached the finish. After a lengthy delay, Bonato was first in and stopped the clocks 2.9s slower than Crugnola, meaning his advantage over Basso was reduced to 2.2s.

FIA European Rally Championship 2023 Stop 6 - Rome, Italy

The gap at the front, however, went into double figures. Battistolli had “a lot of troubles in the fast sections,” but only dropped 7.5s.

The morning’s three stages were repeated for the afternoon, and Crugnola’s form continued. He was fastest by 1.2s over Basso on the second pass of Guarcino – Altipiani di Arcinazzo, and the lead over Bonato grew to 13.9s after the Frenchman suffered a puncture two kilometers from the finish.

Bonato escaped moderately unscathed, time-wise, but the conditions on the stage deteriorated as more rocks and debris was pulled out. Miklós Csomós lost 30s with a slow puncture, and Lukyanuk fell from fifth place to outside the top 50 as he had a punctured tyre that he spent five minutes trying to change.

Next up was the re-run of the Rocca di Cave – Subiaco monster. Bonato summed up everybody’s feeling, saying: “I’m like an Italian pizza in a restaurant: too hot!”

That was referring to the temperature rather than his time – he was seven seconds slower than Crugnola. And with Basso only 4.9s off the pace-setter, it meant Bonato also lost second place in the rally to his Italian rival.

FIA European Rally Championship 2023 Stop 6 - Rome, Italy

“Better than the first loop, but Andrea is very fast. We are pushing,” said Basso afterwards.

Andrea Mabellini (Škoda) and Mareš rose into fourth and fifth, passing Paddon, who had run wide and damaged the right-rear of the Hyundai New Zealand i20 Rally2. The Kiwi lost half a minute.

The day’s final stage, unsurprisingly, went to Crugnola. Basson and Bonato were second and third. Mareš remained fourth while Simone Campedelli forced his Škoda into the top five. A change of toe link between stages helped Paddon to sixth.

Local star Roberto Daprà has been the man to beat in Junior ERC throughout the day. The Italian leads fellow Peugeot 208 Rally4 driver Norbert Maior into Sunday by 17.6s.