Whether you’re cooking a roast dinner, sitting a final exam or starting the first rally of a new season; the more preparation you do beforehand, the better your result should be. But try cooking a roast dinner without potatoes or expecting to walk into a science exam and being presented with a French paper: that’s effectively how it’s been for Europe’s finest rally drivers.
First they were off to the Azores. Then they were off to the Canary Islands. But that was then delayed to December, so they were off to Latvia instead until alas, it was rescheduled to July.
Poland therefore became the fourth different opening round in a matter of weeks before it was lost to COVID-19, promoting Latvia back to the front of the queue. But when its new July slot became infeasible, Rally di Roma on July 24-26 defaulted to being season opener for a revised six-round European Rally Championship season.
Did you keep up with all of that? It was quite the calendar shuffle, and while it may not seem like that big a deal, any preparation a driver did for a specific rally was effectively proven unnecessary, or at worst, wasted. To use the aforementioned analogy, revising for a science exam will always be useful if it’s on the horizon but is far less useful when French is coming up first.
But ultimately everyone has been presented with the same set of circumstances. And just as it is out there on the stages, adaptation has been well and truly tested and we’re about to find out who’s done the most homework.
That starts with an asphalt challenge in the summer sun just outside of Italy’s capital city. But the rallies come thick and fast thereafter with the lightning quick roads around Liepāja, volcanic terrain of the Azores, rock-strewn tracks of Cyprus, asphalt lottery of Hungary and the flowing Mediterranean roads of the Canaries presenting a stern rallying challenge for all competitors.
Citroën C3 R5 pilot Efrén Llarena has done Rally di Roma for the last two seasons, and outlines the nature of round one on July 24-26: “I really like the Rome rally, it’s quite similar to a Spanish Tarmac rally.”
“The first day is narrow [and] bumpy; I really like this [type of] stage. The second day is more wide and open but for sure I also like [these roads]. But I think the most important stages are on the first day.”
That’s what lies in wait, but merely starting a rally after such a long break is a challenge in itself. Even a man as experienced as Craig Breen has admitted to being daunted by the challenge. A test in Sanremo last month was his first opportunity behind the wheel since Finnish national round Itäralli in late February.
“It’s the longest I’ve been out of a car since ever I’d say so it was definitely nice to get back again,” Breen admits.
“It did feel a bit weird when I was getting ready to go, and not being able to get a flight didn’t help, having to go in the truck but it was nice to get back.”
As a semi-regular World Rally Championship driver, Breen is being touted as the benchmark and is the man widely expected to become champion. Breen isn’t so convinced though. While he has an obvious experience advantage over his rivals, his Hyundai i20 R5 will be running on MRF rubber; a less-proven brand which Breen has been tasked with improving.
“We’re constantly developing the tire, constantly trying to make it better,” he says. “I think we’re going in a good direction but as many days as possible we can get testing the better.
“For the other guys it’ll be nice to have some sort of a benchmark I suppose [but] I’m kind of not looking at it so much that way.”
Arguably then, the only true way a valid comparison can be made to Breen’s performances is if somebody else were competing with MRF tires. Just as well WRC3 driver Emil Lindholm is then.
“He’s the perfect benchmark, if not the strongest then one of the strongest drivers in the ERC and to be able to cooperate with him [is fantastic],” Lindholm says of working with Breen. “It’s just so good to be able to compare and look at the data and compare times.”
Lindholm was at the same Italian test as Breen last month and driving the same Hyundai, then behind the wheel again this week for another pre-event test, but now in his regular Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo that Lindholm uses in the Finnish championship. He’d initially planned to contest just the four gravel rounds this year before the pandemic took hold, so we will see him on the asphalt of Rome.
Assessing his chances, Lindholm tells DirtFish: “I’ve done three rallies in Italy in an R5 and a couple of others in an R3, and to be honest I started my rallying career in Germany on asphalt. Obviously Germany is completely different in respect to the roads but it just feels good to be back. I don’t care if it’s asphalt or gravel or ice or whatever, I want to race.”
That race will be a hotly-contested affair, particularly for ERC1 Junior honors. This crown – held across four rounds (no Cyprus or Hungary) – is for R5 pilots aged under 29. Having won the ERC3 Junior title for R2 drivers aged under 28 last year, Llarena is making the jump up this season.
Llarena knows he faces a tough fight, but he insists he isn’t scared by that prospect.
“I think it’s going to be quite difficult for us but I am not scared because I think we can do one test before Rome and in Rome we will do [another] one-day test.
“Maybe it is not enough kilometers with the car before the first rally but this is the situation [we are in] with COVID-19 so I think it’s the best we can do. We will do our best with this [number of] kilometers.
“When I sit in the car for the first kilometers of the test it will be something strange because we have [had] a big break of maybe six or seven months,” he adds. “But I think when we are on the qualifying [stage] we will be fully focused on the rally and we will be ready to drive at 100%.”
One man who isn’t feeling as “anxious” as he might have been however is Callum Devine. Another to be in the frame for the ERC1 Junior spoils, Devine believes a podium in Rome isn’t out of reach as he feels far more comfortable on asphalt than on gravel given his R5 experience in Ireland last year.
“I think it [lockdown] kind of helped us a wee bit because personally my experience in the Hyundai has only been Hungary where we weren’t extremely comfortable,” Devine says. “So starting on gravel [on the Azores] would’ve been another new phase there and we were just feeling a little anxious about it, so now that we’re starting on asphalt I’m a lot happier for it.
“When you start off the year you don’t have the momentum with you unless you have a whole pile of testing behind you. [We don’t have budget for that] so it’s kind of helped us a wee bit, I’m feeling a lot more comfortable going to the first round. [But] we will have a test hopefully before Rome and try to get a grip of things.”
Given Devine’s strong pace against Breen in Ireland last year and a breakthrough podium in Hungary on his ERC debut, he can be considered nothing less than a serious dark horse.
However, he’s aware that a lot of his rivals – even if they’re in unfamiliar machinery – have prior experience of the rallies so recce will be a much easier task for them. So much so, Devine predicts there will be “six or seven pacesetters” in the mountains south-east of Rome.
That list of course includes Alexey Lukyanuk, who’s determined to return to the top of the table after losing out on a second title to Chris Ingram in 2019. Last year was Lukyanuk’s first with Saintéloc Racing in a Citroën C3 R5, which he drove to victory on Rally Poland. In previous seasons driving a Ford Fiesta, he was more frequently seen on the top step of the podium.
He therefore has a score to settle in 2020, and is sure he can be more competitive in the C3 R5 having spent a year learning the car.
“We are more confident now with the car because we know it much better and I believe we can avoid the mistakes and the problems we had last year, so it’s definitely positive,” says Lukyanuk.
“To be a real benchmark, I will try of course but we have some players, some dark horses on the start list so who knows. Definitely we will be fighting and give it all for the top result.”
Lukyanuk admitted however that he is concerned some of his competition will have an edge on round one, owing to the differing lockdown restrictions in various European countries. But he is confident he is in better shape than he ever has been before.
“I would say I [have] made a good step forward with my physical condition [during lockdown] with my sense of balance and things like that. I’m not wasting time for nothing and I’m really curious to see how big impact can it make in real life.
“Of course the real [driving] practice is missing and it’s a thing that affects the confidence and the feeling but I think it’s more or less the same for many drivers. I’m a bit worried that some of the drivers are getting to the rallies, getting to the real tests which is of course a setback for me as I can’t afford anything like that for myself, but still I know I have speed.
“Raw speed is always there and we can go and push. Hopefully my physical condition and my homework will benefit and I will deliver some good results when it restarts.”
But what about the season’s biggest wildcard: Adrien Fourmaux? The news that the M-Sport WRC2 star is joining the ERC – at least for the first two rounds – is a tantalizing barometer of both the young Frenchman’s pace and the speed differential between the ERC and the WRC’s support series.
He certainly isn’t heading to Rome for the sake of it, that’s for sure, as he seeks a podium finish “or maybe more”. Forumaux’s last rally in early March was more recent than most though, so that could be an advantage too. But he still has had time to kill.
“Honestly it was quite difficult for me to stay at home for such a long time so I decided to be useful,” Fourmaux says. “I called my partner, he’s a delivery [driver] so I got a contract to work as a deliverer since the start of April until the end of June, so two months-and-a-half. I worked five days per week so honestly I was quite busy. I was behind a steering wheel so it was not so bad.”
Now that Fourmaux’s focus is back on driving his Ford Fiesta R5 Mk2 instead of an electric van, he’s pulling strings to obtain as much in-car footage as he can from last year’s Rally di Roma so that he can learn the nature of the stages.
“I am asking two or three other drivers if they can give me their onboards which is not easy because sometimes drivers don’t want to! I understand it [because] it’s the same for me but it’s OK, I have some good onboards and I can work on it and it can be my work for this week.
“I was trying to have a test before the rally but it’s not easy yet to organize, it’s always difficult with the social restrictions so I think my next drive will be on the day test with M-Sport, I think it will be like a one-day test on the Tuesday [of the rally week].
“It will be a big challenge for us, [but the idea is] not just to come back in the car it will be really to have a good result. We are prepared to fight.”
The heavyweights are gathering for a punishing six-round boxing match across Europe. Will the knockout blow come early, or will we be treated to a nail-biting thriller?
No matter what Breen says, writing him out of title contention would be foolish, while Lukyanuk seems an obvious bet for success too. And in Rome, fully expect Fourmaux to have a great influence on the result too.
And what about Oliver Solberg? While he is likely to be just a footnote in the season’s narrative, he’ll be anything but in Rome. The teenager has been behind the wheel a lot recently, winning Rally Sweden Lockdown and performing well at the Magic Weekend rallycross event earlier this month.
He has started one ERC rally in an R5 car before, and, err… he won. However his asphalt pace remains a relative unknown, so it’ll be fascinating to see where he slots in.
But perhaps the biggest winner out of all this could be the ERC itself, which stands to gain more fans than ever before as the only major rally championship for onlookers to follow. The entry list for Rally di Roma is simply superb, and that’s even without the reigning champion Chris Ingram’s presence.
Forget roast dinners: international rallying is back. Let’s enjoy the show. After all, we’ve waited long enough.