Efrén Llarena has emerged as Ricardo Moura’s biggest challenger for Rally Azores victory on Sunday, keeping himself within reach of the lead as podium rivals Simon Wagner and Ken Torn went backwards.
Team MRF driver Llarena had a disastrous start to his European Rally Championship title bid on Rally Serras de Fafe, finishing 12th and needing to play catchup in the Azores.
While he couldn’t quite match the pace of rally leader Ricardo Moura, who took a stunning stage win on the 4.64-mile Feteiras stage by 3.6s, Llarena was the only member of an ERC trio able to keep up with the 10-time Azorean champion.
Moura ended the loop by winning the second Grupo Marques superspecial of the rally to extend his rally lead to 14.3s – something he felt showed he was leading on raw pace and not only relying on having a knowledge advantage as a local driver.
“I am trying hard, believe me. It’s not easy. Those guys are very good, very young, they have a very good margin and I’m pushing,” said Moura.
“My knowledge is important, I know that, that’s why I can fight with them, otherwise it would be very difficult.”
“Even so, this [superspecial win] makes me happy because this is not knowledge. This is a superspeical and it changes every time and still we can be fast.”
Torn had started Sunday in fourth place but was immediately on the pace, winning the first stage of the day by 1.2s to immediately grab third from Wagner and put himself a mere 0.4s behind Llarena.
But his rally quickly unraveled thereafter. Torn tipped his Ford Fiesta Rally2 into a spin on Feteiras after bouncing off a bank, dropping over 20s. And it got much worse on Sete Cidades; his Fiesta ground to a halt with blue puffs of smoke emerging from under the hood, forcing him to retire from the podium fight.
Wagner was “very cautious” on Sete Cidades and continued to drop time to Moura and Llarena, ending the penultimate loop 10.8s off the latter in third place.
But he was lucky not to suffer a similar fate – or worse – on the same Feteiras stage as Torn. He too clipped a bank at speed, which bounced him in the direction of a ditch littered with rocks, though unlike Torn he carried on unimpeded.
Simone Tempestini climbed to fourth place on the penultimate loop, aided by a morning of woe for Portuguese championship leader Armindo Araújo.
Complaining that his car’s setup was too soft and that he was “always sliding”, Araújo’s slip down the order was compounded by an overshoot on Ribeira Grande, which contributed to 19s of his time loss.
After starting the day fourth Araújo finished the morning loop sixth, finding himself usurped by Javier Pardo in addition to Tempestini, albeit only 0.6s behind the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo driver.
Pardo had gone with an alternative tire strategy, picking a pair of the second-softest compound tires instead of the full mud tires favored by the rest of his Michelin-shod rivals.
That call seemed to pay off on Sete Cidades, where he jumped from eighth to fifth in one go as one of four drivers at the top of the timesheets that were covered by a mere 0.5s.
Pardo’s climb up the table was aided not only by Torn’s retirement and Araújo’s struggles but also a difficult run on Sete Cidades for Ruben Rodrigues, one of the local Azorean drivers.
Rodrigues had started the day strongly, going fourth-fastest on Feteiras to move from 10th to seventh. But that progress all came undone on Sete Cidades, where he dropped 22.7s compared to stage winner Tempestini and fell to eighth.
A battle between Rodrigues and Bruno Magalhães that began on Friday morning continues in earnest, with Magalhães moving back ahead of Rodrigues on Saturday morning and finishing the loop 1.7s ahead in seventh place.
Alberto Battistolli and Simone Campedelli were both in the wars on Feteiras and have fallen to ninth and 10th respectively.
A rear-right puncture cost Battistolli over 20s but Campedelli faced a far bigger problem – the brakes on one corner of his car had stopped working, costing him over a minute and a half.
“I have three brakes but we didn’t have time to bleed the system,” said Campedelli after Sete Cidades, the second stage where he’d had to nurse his failing brakes.
“It was quite long and in places too much risk honestly, the car braking on the side like this.
“Considering everything, [it was] not so bad. It has been a nightmare, honestly speaking.”
Classification after SS11
1 Ricardo Moura/António Costa (Škoda) 1h56m13.1s
2 Efrén Llarena/Sara Fernández (Škoda) +14.7s
3 Simon Wagner/Gerald Winter (Škoda) +25.5s
4 Simone Tempestini/Sergiu Itu (Škoda) +53.7s
5 Javier Pardo/Adrián Pérez (Škoda) +1m20.3s
6 Armindo Araújo/Luís Ramalho (Škoda) +1m20.9s
7 Bruno Magalhães/Carlos Magalhães (Hyundai) +1m32.5s
8 Rúben Rodrigues/Estevão Rodrigues (Citroën) +1m34.2s
9 Alberto Battistolli/Simone Scattalin (Škoda) +2m00.4s
10 Simone Campedelli/Tania Canton (Škoda) +2m45.4s