Hyundai junior driver Nikolay Gryazin is heading back to the European Rally Championship, in which he won the ERC1 Junior title in 2018, to compete on next week’s Rally Liepaja against WRC2 rival Mads Østberg.
Since 2015, Gryazin has almost exclusively had one person in the co-driver’s seat as he climbed the junior ladder: Yaroslav Fedorov, who also navigated for Gryazin in the first three World Rally Championship rounds this year.
But Fedorov has been encountering visa issues, meaning Gryazin was forced to go looking for a new co-driver at the end of last month.
Konstantin Aleksandrov wasn’t the most obvious of picks; he’d co-driven for Gryazin once before, when the pair shared a Škoda Fabia R5 on a sprint rally based at Latvia’s only permanent racing circuit, Biķernieki.
But other than that, Aleksandrov’s career had been spent in his native Russia sitting mainly in the passenger seat of Ladas.
Gryazin wanted to get the new pairing up to speed as quickly as possible. And the duo took part in – and won – Samsonas Rally Rokiškis, a round of the Lithuanian national championship. So the new partnership had clicked.
How had they managed to get on the pace so quickly? Video games.
“Yaroslav has a problem with his visa and it’s really difficult so we decided to go with Konstantin. He’s doing a great job,” said Gryazin.
“Before the race in Lithuania we were playing Richard Burns Rally. I was reading the pacenotes to him, he wrote and after we did some championships, some stages. He was reading the notes to me and after that I was used to hearing him so it’s not a surprise to hear another voice.”
That trip to Lithuania was “more a warm-up race” than anything according to Gryazin, but he did find it useful to benchmark himself against one particular driver. And it’s a name you perhaps wouldn’t expect.
Vaidotas Žala has established himself as one of the quickest drivers in the Baltic region, winning the top division of Lithuania’s national championship.
“It was interesting to check our pace against Vaidotas Žala and [Finnish national champion] Teemu Asunmaa,” Gryazin said.
“In 2018 I was doing Rally Elektrėnai in Lithuania and I had a very tough fight with Vaidotas Žala. After that I went to Rally Poland for ERC I was more confident to drive without big risks. This is also why I decided to go to this rally in Lithuania to drive against Žala, to check our pace and prepare for Liepāja as well.”
Liepaja will act as a warm-up to the resumption of Gryazin’s – and Østberg’s – WRC2 campaigns in Estonia next month.
They’ll be going up against WRC3 frontrunner Oliver Solberg and Gryazin’s former ERC rival Alexey Lukyanuk – who won the season-opening Rally di Roma – and Gryazin expects the flat-out driving styles of both to produce exciting action next weekend.
“You need to believe when you make the big slides the car will stop more effectively than if you brake straight. That’s why this rally is really spectacular, because fast drivers like Lukyanuk, Solberg and me, for example, are doing quite spectacular sideways.
“Normally in Finland it’s spectacular for the jumps but the car is not doing these big slides because otherwise in Finland you will crash and lose the grip.
“In the gravel in Latvia the big slides are giving you more grip, so you need to understand where you need to use the slide. It seems like a drift tournament because people are doing big slides before the corner and it looks good on the camera.”