The European Rally Championship is approaching its halfway point of the season, fielding a brand new event in northern Portugal, Rally Fafe Montelongo, that effectively replaces the canceled Rally Azores.
Alexey Lukyanuk and Oliver Solberg will resume their title battle in Fafe, separated by only four points, while regular big-guns Craig Breen, Grégoire Munster and Emil Lindholm – who only just missed out on a first Finnish title last weekend – are all in attendance.
But who outside of the usual top runners could pose a victory threat?
Portugal’s top domestic drivers like Lukyanuk’s former rival Bruno Magalhães and ex-factory Mini driver Armindo Araujo are all absent, instead focusing on next weekend’s Rally Vidreiro, the next round of the main Portuguese championship.
Instead, the threat should come from (only slightly) further afield…
Hyundai Motor España’s three musketeers are all back in town to have another run at conquering the European field. Like last year’s Canary Islands Rally, a trio of Hyundai i20 R5s driven by Spanish championship regulars Iván Ares, Surhayen Pernía and Francisco López Pacheco are back for more ERC action.
This weekend would originally have been a clashing date with Rally Villa de Llanes but, thanks to COVID-19, said round of the Spanish championship is long gone from the 2020 calendar, giving the trio a chance to take on the ERC twice this year should Rally Islas Canarias go ahead in late November.
Of the trio, Ares has the most potential to compete at the sharp end with Lukyanuk and co. The 2017 Spanish Rally Champion has also been runner-up in his domestic championship three times in the last five years, and his appearance in the ERC last year had him in the mix for the podium until a puncture dropped him out of contention.
His weapon of choice has been sharpened too; Ares’ i20 has been given updates originally developed for the factory WRC2 cars driven by Ole Christian Veiby and Nikolay Gryazin. He’s got the firepower, but will the lead musketeer get his aim on target?
Two-time French Tarmac Champion Yoann Bonato will be the invisible threat for victory; invisible in the sense that he’s not registered for points and not even an FIA priority driver. There will be no need for the ERC regulars to find an extra few seconds to win a place back from him on the road, other than pride. If he breaks free at the front, nobody will be seriously chasing him.
Bonato has been imperious in his domestic asphalt championship again this year, winning all three rounds held so far and also picking up a WRC3 podium at Monte Carlo Rally back in January. He also knows his car better than anyone else; he gave the Citroën C3 R5 its competitive debut on Rally du Var back in 2017 and has driven one ever since.
In the absence of the majority of Portuguese championship regulars, Bonato should be the top ‘ringer’ this weekend. He may not know the roads but he definitely knows the surface.
Last year’s ERC3 Junior champion Efrén Llarena had a good start to his 2020 season with sixth place overall on Rally di Roma, his first event in a Saintéloc Racing-prepared Citroën C3 R5.
The Spanish motorsport federation has backed him for two-and-a-half seasons now and expectations on young drivers are huge; the pressure is on to score a first ERC podium this year.
Canary Islands aside, a rally he’s competed on twice before, this event is potentially his best shot at making the podium. Experienced ERC regulars come here with no pacenotes from past years, no frame of reference for road speeds, nothing.
It’s a level playing field and, in theory at least, Llarena’s years of experience on Spanish asphalt should come in handy on Fafe’s similar sealed-surface stages.
“We had a great feeling in Rome competing on Tarmac for the first time with the Citroën C3 R5, so my aim for the third ERC round is to show we are able to fight again for the podium,” says Llarena.
“Mainly, I want to confirm my rhythm on this kind of surface at the wheel of my new car, trying to be as fast as possible to achieve an even better result we got in Italy at the end of July.”
With Robert Kubica out of the frame in a rallying context, Poland has turned to a new driver in the hopes of World Rally Championship success: Miko Marczyk.
The 24-year-old is reigning national champion in his homeland and already has truly fervent support from the Polish fans, but it’s important to remember this is very much a learning year for Marczyk. No heroics just yet.
But as is the case for Llarena, the baseline has been levelled. Marczyk was up against a swathe of Italians armed with years of experience in Rome, in addition to the ERC pack, and this time the experience gap is smaller.
“This is a new rally and this is good for us because every ERC rally is new for us and we haven’t got experience,” Marczyk says.
“Now we have an equal chance between the competitors. It’s hard to say what our aims are but we would like to be on the finish line and improve my driving on the Tarmac, this is the target.”
That’s typically modest talk from Marczyk, who’s never been one to talk up his own performances. But Polish asphalt is where he’s been at his best previously; all his national championship wins have come on sealed surfaces. Fafe Montelongo is a chance for Marczyk to show why he’s such a big deal back home.
Like Marczyk, Cais has been touted as the Czech Republic’s next big talent, a natural successor to Jan Kopecky. But by his own admission 2020 has not gone the way he’d hoped so far, a 12th place in Liepaja his best ERC result so far.
One thing that’s got his spirits up ahead of this weekend is the weather forecast. It’s looking likely to rain for most of the weekend, making the asphalt surface slippery. Barum Rally conditions, in other words. Just the way Cais likes it.
“I prefer Tarmac to gravel because I live in Zlín and, for me, Tarmac is the best one. For the experience the gravel is also great but my heart belongs to Tarmac,” explains Cais.
“If we have rain it’s really difficult but I would say it’s probably the conditions I like most. I am looking forward if there is some rain and water on the roads.
Something Llarena, Marczyk and Cais all have in common is a shared enemy: Oliver Solberg.
ERC1 Junior leader Solberg has already streaked out into a clear lead in said category’s title race, and all three would dearly like to claw some points back. Failing that, there should still be a tasty ERC1 Junior scrap between that trio, Munster and Lindholm.