Efrén Llarena has taken a stunning last gasp victory on Rally Azores, scoring two breathtaking stage wins on Sunday afternoon to overhaul local expert Ricardo Moura on the powerstage to win by only 2.7 seconds.
Moura had led since the start of the rally and had built up a cushion of over 10 seconds by Sunday lunchtime, looking assured out front.
But Llarena, who was on a mission to get his European Rally Championship title ambitions back on track after a disastrous season opener on Rally Serras de Fafe, began clawing back time hand over first on the final loop of the rally.
Team MRF’s lead driver hadn’t won a single stage all rally until the penultimate test of the weekend, the second pass of the famous Sete Cidades test. Amid thick fog at the top of the rim of an extinct volcano, Llarena exploded with newfound pace, gaining 7.7s and reducing the lead gap to only 6.1s.
Moura conceded that he was haunted by memories of rallies past on Sete Cidades, leading to extra caution.
“We drive safely, trying to avoid big risks, because there were a lot of stones and holes, so we came slowly,” said Moura. “Last year here we ruined everything so we want to make sure we make it safe. One more stage, let’s push.”
But that push wasn’t enough. Llarena, who “pushed like hell” and was “at 200%” on the powerstage, went fastest by seven seconds from Simone Tempestini. But more importantly, he’d taken 8.7s out of Moura to steal the rally win away, his first outright ERC win in his third season and the first for MRF tires.
Simon Wagner finished a lonely third, 28.7s off Moura. The reigning Austrian champion had pulled himself into contention on Friday with a pair of stage wins but began to fall back on Sunday, not taking any risks and cementing a podium finish instead.
Tempestini behind had started to catch Wagner, racking up two stage wins on Sunday. But he ultimately ran out of time to put himself in the podium fight, finishing 19s behind Wagner in fourth and nearly a minute off rally winner Llarena.
Armindo Araújo has assumed the points lead in ERC – three points clear of Llarena – thanks to his fifth place, adding to a podium finish at the season opener in Fafe.
Setup woes had held him back more than once during the rally, struggling on both Saturday and Sunday morning. But as others around him fell by the wayside, the two-time PWRC champion was left to clock in with fifth place all alone, a minute behind Tempestini and also over a minute ahead of sixth-placed Bruno Magalhães.
A battle of attrition broke out in the midfield on the final loop as mechanical woes and crashes shook up the order outside the top five. Ruben Rodrigues was the first to fall, losing a potential top six finish as his Citroën C3 Rally2 ground to a halt only a couple of miles onto the first stage of Sunday afternoon, Feteiras.
There was more woe for Javier Pardo, who’d already found himself further back in the order than he’d expected after two spins on Saturday morning. But on the second pass of Feteiras, his front driveshaft broke, leaving his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo with only rear-wheel drive.
Pardo limped through Sete Cidades and was passed by a flying Tempestini mid-stage. But pulling off a miracle bit of DIY mechanic work, he swapped the front and rear driveshafts during the regroup before the powerstage, converting his Fabia to a front-wheel drive car and limiting his losses somewhat on Ribeira Grande.
Despite all his hard work and perseverance, he was only rewarded with 13th – a big disappointment for a driver who’d been battling Araújo for a top five finish only a few stages earlier.
Magalhães was not immune to mechanical problems either, saying the rear of his car was “broken”. While he couldn’t diagnose the fault, he suspected gravel lodged in a damper or a faulty rear anti-rollbar was likely to blame. And while it cost him plenty of time, it wouldn’t cost him positions, as others fared worse.
Alberto Battistolli was in the box seat to benefit from problems for Rodrigues, Pardo and Magalhães, only to roll at a hairpin junction on the powerstage – much to Battistolli’s embarrassment.
“In first gear at the junction I felt incredibly stupid – and I am apparently. I think I damaged the car beyond repair. I’m sorry to everyone, really,” he said.
He lost over a minute with the inversion and fell to ninth place. Fellow Italian Simone Campedelli was the main beneficiary, recovering from brake failure on Sunday morning to pick up seventh overall ahead of MRF team-mate Norbert Herczig.
Mārtiņš Sesks was another beneficiary of the late midfield drama, ascending to 10th overall as he locked up a second consecutive victory in the ERC Open class.
1 Efrén Llarena/Sara Fernández (Škoda) 2h24m58.3s
2 Ricardo Moura/António Costa (Škoda) +2.7s
3 Simon Wagner/Gerald Winter (Škoda) +31.4s
4 Simone Tempestini/Sergiu Itu (Škoda) +50.4s
5 Armindo Araújo/Luís Ramalho (Škoda) +1m48.0s
6 Bruno Magalhães/Carlos Magalhães (Hyundai) +3m01.9s
7 Simone Campedelli/Tania Canton (Škoda) +3m10.9s
8 Norbert Herczig/Igor Bacigál (Škoda) +3m35.0s
9 Alberto Battistolli/Simone Scattalin (Škoda) +3m49.4s
10 Mārtiņš Sesks/Renars Francis (Škoda) +5m15.5s
1 Araujo (45 pts) 2 Llarena (42 pts) 3 Nil Solans (32 pts) 4 Magalhães (30 pts) 5 Battistolli (29 pts) 6 Moura (27 pts) 7 Wagner (23 pts) 8 Tempestini (23 pts)