Simon Wagner has turned the screw on local hero Ricardo Moura in the fight for the lead of Rally Azores, winning two stages on Saturday afternoon to close the gap to 8.4 seconds.
Reigning Austrian national champion Wagner had been in fourth place at the first midday service, with Team MRF’s Simone Campedelli close behind. But instead of looking backwards Wagner mounted a thrilling charge forward to vault into the fight for the win.
Ricardo Moura, the 10-time Azorean regional champion, continued to edge out his advantage over early challengers Ken Torn and Efrén Llarena, taking a stage win on the second pass of Graminhais.
But come Tronqueira’s second run Moura found himself in an unfamiliar position – fifth fastest, 12.1s off the scorching pace set by Wagner.
That stage time was some feat given the trouble faced by the Eurosol driver at the same watersplash that had claimed Jon Armstrong’s Ford Fiesta Rally3 earlier in the day.
“That’s crazy,” said Wagner when told of his stage-winning time, “because our car almost stopped after the watersplash so we lost 2-3 seconds.”
Moura was able to recoup a little bit of time on the Grupo Marques superspecial, clawing 1.5s back from Wagner at the end of Saturday’s action.
“I hope they [the fans] are proud to see an Azorean driver fighting for the podium,” said an emotional Moura at the end of Graminhais.
Hopes of local success now rest solely on Moura’s sholuders. Fellow islander Ruben Rodrigues, who’d won the Friday morning running of Tronqueira, fell to the back end of the top 10 by going over half a minute slower than Moura on Graminhais 2.
Wagner’s afternoon renaissance had marked out a wider shift in fortunes across the board on the afternoon pass, as those who’d struggled early doors recovered and fast drivers down the road order began to struggle.
ERC Junior champion Torn had initially been Moura’s closest rival but dropped 16.9s to stage winner Wagner on Tronqueira 2, with steam pouring out of the hood of his Ford Fiesta Rally2 after traversing the late-stage watersplash.
That dropped Torn from second to fourth on the spot, with Llarena staying put in third as the Team MRF driver’s gains on the driver he’d beaten to the 2019 ERC3 Junior title were offset by Wagner charging past.
Llarena had only registered a top-three stage time twice all day but his consistency paid off – as did a strong run on Grupo Marques, which allowed him to reduce his disadvantage to Wagner in second to a mere 0.6s.
Behind him, there here were no long-lasting effects to Torn’s steamy watersplash escapade, as he managed to set exactly the same time as Moura in their head-to-head duel on the Grupo Marques superspecial.
Torn ended the day a mere 2.7s behind Llarena and 11.7s off Moura in the lead, setting up a potential four-way battle for the win on Sunday.
De-facto championship leader Armindo Araújo, top seed for the rally amid points leader Nil Solans’ budget-related absence, was on the comeback trail after a difficult opening loop.
Setup changes at midday service transformed his pace, ascending from the wrong end of the top 10 all the way to fifth overall. But that fifth place occupies a no-man’s land of sorts, sitting 23.8s away from the top four battle.
It was a similar story for Simone Tempestini, who leveraged his position as third car on the road to go fourth-fastest on Tronqueira and take sixth overall, 9.6s off Araújo. Also on the move was Javier Pardo, who’d spun twice on the opening loop but recovered well to nick seventh off Campedelli by 1.5s.
Rodrigues was one of those who fell the furthest in the afternoon loop, falling from sixth to 10th, and there was similar woe for Bruno Magalhães who had started Friday afternoon battling Rodrigues for sixth. In the end, he was still right behind the Citroën C3 R5 driver, except now down in 11th.
It was an unwelcomed repeat of the season opener, Rally Serras de Fafe, where he’d similarly gone backwards as he struggled well down the road order.
“We don’t have grip. No traction, no brake; the damper is completely open so I cannot open more. [It is] a little bit like in Fafe,” said the Hyundai Team Portugal driver.
“In these conditions it’s hard to find the correct grip to find the confidence. I’m trying to keep the car on the road and even losing a lot of time like that. It’s difficult.”
Those woes for Rodrigues and Magalhães helped out ACI Team Italia’s Alberto Battistolli, who moved into ninth place. Battistolli recorded a career-first ERC stage win by topping the day-ending Grupo Marques superspecial.
Classification after SS7
1 Ricardo Moura/António Costa (Škoda) 1h24m11.8s
2 Simon Wagner/Gerald Winter (Škoda) +8.4s
3 Efrén Llarena/Sara Fernández (Škoda) +9.0s
4 Ken Torn/Kauri Pannas (Ford) +11.7s
5 Armindo Araújo/Luís Ramalho (Škoda)
6 Simone Tempestini/Sergiu Itu (Škoda) +45.1s
7 Javier Pardo/Adrián Pérez (Škoda) +51.4s
8 Simone Campedelli/Tania Canton (Škoda) +52.9s
9 Alberto Battistolli/Simone Scattalin (Škoda) +1m00.1s
10 Rúben Rodrigues/Estevão Rodrigues (Citroën) +1m02.1s