Alexey Lukyanuk’s hopes of a second European Rally Championship win of the season are over, after a mistake at a time control has earned him a five-minute penalty and relieved pressure on Rally Hungary leader Andreas Mikkelsen.
A close battle emerged on Saturday morning between Mikkelsen and Lukyanuk, who sepnt most of the first loop separated by mere tenths of a second.
The gap had opened up slightly on the first pass of Mád when a damaged bonnet pin forced Lukyanuk to back off and drop five seconds, but his time loss later became academic when he checked in early to the first stage of the afternoon pass, Újhuta.
A slight itinerary change on Saturday meant the start time of SS6 was moved back from 1520 to 1528 local time.
Much to Lukyanuk’s chagrin, he and co-driver Dmitry Eremeev – who took over from Lukyanuk’s long-time navigator Alexey Arnautov for this season – said they checked in five minutes early by mistake.
The standard penalty for early arrival is one minute added to the rally time for each minute a crew has checked in too early to a control.
Lukyanuk put blame for the error squarely at Eremeev’s feet.
“Not mine,” responded Lukyanuk when asked who committed the error.
Craig Breen moved into second place on pace alone, taking his first stage win of the rally by 0.7s over Mikkelsen.
But Mikkelsen turned the tables on the longest stage of the rally, Füzér, taking another stage win by 4.1s to grow his lead to 18.4s.
Lukyanuk was seemingly affected by the catastrophic time control error out on the road, going 10s slower than Mikkelsen and dropping to third prior to his penalty being applied. After his application, he was dropped all the way down to 22nd place.
That penalty blows the ERC title race, which Lukyanuk had been leading comfortably by 42 points over Oliver Solberg, wide open.
With 40 points on offer at each rally, Solberg can’t catch Lukyanuk but is now in a position to erase most of the 2018 champion’s lead.
Solberg had faced a setback of his own at the previous round in Portugal when a broken exhaust left him scoring zero points.
Breen is also in a position to capitalise, with a big score keeping him mathematically in the title race should the last two rounds of the season – Canary Islands Rally and Spa Rally – go ahead.
Solberg had gained third place after Lukyanuk’s penalty but has now dropped to fifth, as he picked up a puncture by hitting “the world’s smallest bale” on Füzér.
That promoted his ERC1 Junior title rival Grégoire Munster into the final podium position, and is now 6.3s up on Team MRF’s Emil Lindholm after SS7.
Lindholm had eased past Niki Mayr-Melnhof for fifth place on Újhuta and then took fourth amid Solberg’s puncture drama, while also closing in on Munster for third.
Mayr-Melnhof’s pace from the morning loop had deserted him by Saturday afternoon, going over a minute slower than Mikkelsen across the re-runs of Újhuta and Füzér.
He was at a loss to explain what had gone wrong.
“Wrong tire? I don’t know. It’s super difficult. It’s super muddy. I don’t know what to say.”
Four-time Hungarian national champion Norbert Herczig nicked sixth off both Mayr-Melnhof and Rally Team Spain’s Efrén Llarena, now an identical gap off the lead, after the reigning ERC3 Junior found himself stuck behind an ailing Miko Marczyk for around four miles.
Marczyk had stopped to change a puncture on his Fabia but held up Llarena once he was back underway, the pair crossing the finish line one after the other.
Marijan Griebel and Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver Callum Devine complete the top 10.
Leading positions after SS7
1 Mikkelsen (Škoda) 56m39.7s
2 Breen (Hyundai) +18.4s
3 Munster (Hyundai) +1m08.3s
4 Lindholm (Škoda) +1m14.6s
5 Solberg (Škoda) +1m30.1s
6 Herczig (Volkswagen) +1m46.4s
7 Mayr-Melnhof (Ford) +1m51.6s
8 Llarena (Citroën) +1m51.6s
9 Griebel (Citroën) +1m55.0s
10 Devine (Hyundai) +2m04.1s