European Rally Championship points leader Alexey Lukyanuk navigated a day of tire selection headaches and issues for his title rivals to lead Rally Fafe Montelongo after the first day of stages.
Lukyanuk won six out of nine stages amid rapidly evolving weather and road conditions, with multiple dry and wet patches on single stages making tire selection something of a lottery.
Patches of fog were also in the mix, with 14th-placed Marijan Griebel remarking that conditions on stage seven, the last pass of Montim, were “worse than [Rally] GB”.
Despite those challenges, Rally di Roma winner Lukyanuk cemented a 38.3s lead over Iván Ares, who edged out Yoann Bonato during a day-long, four-way scrap for second place.
Oliver Solberg had started the day as Lukyanuk’s closest challenger for the lead but a call to take full wets on the second loop backfired, dropping time to Craig Breen, Ares, and Bonato as he fell to fourth.
Breen had risen to second as Solberg struggled but then spun on the final pass of Montim and ripped a wheel off his Team MRF Hyundai on Anjos, retiring after the stage finish.
Solberg suffered a suspected broken exhaust that forced him to limp through the last two stages of the day, dropping him well outside the top 10.
“I think it’s maybe from a cut or something and it’s blocked the exhaust and whatever happens after that,” said Solberg. “We ran out of oil after that. It’s not been our weekend, unfortunately.”
As the amount of rain and fog increased Ares came to the fore, winning stage seven to take second place from the spinning Breen.
Ares put his strong form late in the day down to smart tire choices, as others struggled for consistency in the inclement conditions.
Bonato meanwhile was quietly making progress, racking up top-three stage times on the last four stages of the day and closing the gap to Ares down to only 0.4 seconds.
Hyundai junior driver Grégoire Munster had a similarly under-the-radar performance, spending much of his day battling Norbert Herczig for seventh before surging up the order as the late chaos unfolded.
Munster won the final stage of the day, leapfrogging Rally Team Spain’s Efrén Llarena for what had become fourth place following Breen and Solberg’s woes.
Llarena lamented being “too much slow” on the final stage as he “tried to survive” the dramas which had befallen many crews on the last loop of the day.
Llarena had reached end-of-day service only 2.6s adrift of ERC1 Junior class leader Munster but his rally went from promising to disastrous after he’d done his job for the day.
A fix to the exhaust manifold during service didn’t go smoothly and such was the delay in getting him turned around to check-in for overnight parc fermé, that Llarena was forced to retire for going over the maximum time penalty limit.
Due to the nature of his retirement, Llarena isn’t allowed to restart on Sunday either, robbing him of what would have been his best ERC result to date.
Herczig continues to be in the frame in that fourth-place battle, 15.1s in arrears to Munster, while Sports Racing Technologies driver Miko Marczyk ended the day in sixth, 6.3s behind Herczig.
Dominik Dinkel had passed Marczyk on stage seven but contact with a wall took a tire off the rim and damaged a steering arm, demoting him back a position.
Instead of looking ahead Dinkel now has to worry about the driver behind, as a resurgent Erik Cais reveled in the worsening conditions.
Cais, who is a native of Barum Rally Zlín’s host city, had been hoping for rain and fog before the event.
When that bad weather arrived on the final loop, Cais flew, going third fastest on SS8 and fourth fastest on SS9 to move into ninth, only 4.4s behind Dinkel, which became eighth after Llarena’s service nightmare.
Callum Devine is locked in a battle with Ares’ Spanish championship team-mate Surhayen Pernía for ninth, the pair separated by 8.1s.
Tibor Érdi Jr appears on course for a comfortable ERC2 victory and potentially the championship lead, as current points leader Zelindo Melegari crashed his Alpine A110 in the final section of the third pass of Anjos.
Melegari’s car went down a bank and caused the rest of the stage to be red-flagged but unlike his devastating crash on last year’s Barum Rally Zlín in an Abarth 124, where both he and co-driver Corrado Bonato suffered multiple injuries, the crew emerged unhurt.
Dmitry Feofanov had been fending off Melegari for second place before the latter’s crash but now has Andrea Mabellini on his hands, who is currently the best-placed Abarth in third place.
Pep Bassas extended his class lead over ERC3 championship leader Ken Torn further on Saturday afternoon, having already taken the lead despite his engine being down on power on the first loop.
With his Peugeot 208 Rally4 back to full strength after first service, Bassas won four stages, though Torn was faster on both passes of Queimadela to cap his losses to 24.8s overall.
Pedro Almeida is a comfortable third in another 208 Rally4, 48s behind Bassas.
Results after SS9
1 Lukyanuk (Citroën) 53m37.4s
2 Ares (Hyundai) +38.3s
3 Bonato (Citroën) +38.7s
4 Munster (Hyundai) +1m13.3s
5 Herczig (Volkswagen) +1m28.4s
6 Marczyk (Škoda) +1m34.7s
7 Dinkel (Škoda) +1m48.7s
8 Cais (Ford) +1m53.1s
9 Devine (Hyundai) +2m09.2s
10 Pernía (Hyundai) +2m17.3s