More strategy headaches continued to shake up the order on the European Rally Championship’s Canary Islands season finale, as M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux made a late charge towards the lead on Friday afternoon and Alexey Lukyanuk’s comeback charge fell apart.
Variable conditions on Friday morning had turned the rally’s opening loop into a tire lottery that left several of the frontrunners far adrift of the top spots, with title contenders Lukyanuk and Oliver Solberg ninth and 11th at lunchtime service.
The weather improved in the early afternoon and Lukyanuk had gone for medium slicks to great effect initially, winning the reruns of both Valsequillo and San Mateo to quickly rise from ninth to fourth.
But all those gains were wiped out on the next two tests, with Artenara fully wet and rain starting to fall midway through the second pass of Tejeda, which caught out drivers further down the running order.
“We enjoyed two dry stages and I will keep these memories of Canarias in my heart for the rest of my life. But the rest was s***,” said Lukyanuk.
Solberg and former factory World Rally Championship driver Andreas Mikkelsen both picked a mix of slick and wet tires in a cross pattern, which against their own expectations worked well and in Solberg’s case promoted him from 10th to seventh on Tejeda.
While Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 pilot Solberg is now ahead of Lukyanuk on the rally he is still far off the required result to pip his rival to the ERC title, over a minute behind the leaders and needing a top-two result to have any hope of beating Lukyanuk.
Nil Solans had strengthened his rally lead to 16.1s after Friday afternoon’s San Mateo rerun but fell into the clutches of Iván Ares thereafter.
A spin on Artenara cost Solans around 10s, which was compounded by a sudden downpour moments before he started the Tejeda stage.
With his run on Tejeda compromised, Solans was 17.4s off the pace, which allowed Ares to swoop into a 7.5s lead by the end of the first leg.
A delay midway through the day-ending Las Palmas superspecial shook up the order further, as rain arrived during the delay combined with several drivers running on now-cold slick tires.
Fourmaux had already been fastest on SS7 and SS8 to cement his third place and close the gap to the leading duo, then took second place in Las Palmas as Solans struggled for grip.
Ares faced the same problem as Solans in Las Palmas with cold slicks on a wet road, dropping 8.5s to Fourmaux in the one-mile superspecial.
Solans remains in contention for victory despite his issues late in the day, 1.5s behind Fourmaux in third.
Three-time French Tarmac Champion Yoann Bonato juggled the conditions well by running a mixed set of tires earlier in the loop and initially regretted switching to a full set of slicks for the Tejeda test.
“We are stupid because we changed to slick before this stage and it’s completely wet!” remarked Bonato at the end of SS8.
While the best-placed Citroën C3 R5 driver had dropped 9.2s to Fourmaux with the last-minute rainfall, Bonato still retained fourth place by nearly half a minute from José Antonio Suárez, despite starting Friday’s afternoon loop in eighth.
Going in the opposite direction to the charging Bonato and Suárez were ERC1 Junior frontrunner Erik Cais, Yeray Lemes, the reigning champion of the Canary Islands own series, and Saintéloc’s Marijan Griebel.
Cais was the first to bow out of the running for a podium finish when he hit a bridge on Valsequillo, damaging the left-rear wheel of his Ford Fiesta Rally2 and forcing him to park up and retire.
Lemes had started Friday afternoon only 1.1s behind Fourmaux but went backwards rapidly, dropping over half a minute on Artenara alone and falling all the way down to 10th by the end of the day.
Despite being as high as second on Friday morning Griebel was unable to sustain his early pace, which wasn’t helped by the inside of his C3 R5 misting up and obstructing his visibility.
Griebel dropped to ninth by the end of the day behind team-mate Lukyanuk, 1.1s behind his fellow Citroën driver.
Luis Monzón initially fell down the order on Friday afternoon’s drier stages, but the rainy Tejeda rerun allowed the 30-time veteran of the rally to climb back to sixth place, only 2.5s behind Suarez in fifth.
Mikkelsen had a torrid time of his second ERC appearance of the year until SS6, at which point he’d fallen to 17th place and two minutes off the lead through speed alone.
Likewise, Team MRF’s Craig Breen was also struggling, a further 5.5s down the road in 18th. Their struggles led to a bizarre leaderboard, with the highly experienced WRC duo behind ERC3 leader Pep Bassas’ two-wheel-drive Peugeot 208 Rally4.
The wetter Artenara helped both of them climb up the leaderboard, with Breen setting third-fastest time and Mikkelsen setting top-five times on both Artenara and Tejeda.
Mikkelsen has now climbed to 11th and is only 4.4s behind Lemes ahead in 10th, while Breen is 15th and within striking distance of Simone Tempestini.
Though Solberg’s hopes of the overall ERC title are slim, his odds in ERC1 Junior are looking strong thanks to a horrible start for Grégoire Munster.
Good news had come Munster’s way early on Friday morning when his one-point lead had suddenly became six points, owing to Emil Lindholm being disqualified from Rally Liepaja due to a fuel irregularity and Munster moving up a place.
But any positives were short-lived, as Munster suffered a puncture on the first stage on Gran Canaria that dropped him nearly three minutes behind Solberg over the course of Friday morning.
While the Hyundai junior’s pace picked up on the drier afternoon runs of Valsequillo and San Mateo, Munster’s earlier losses appear insurmountable and only an issue for Solberg is likely to give him the ERC1 Junior title.
“I almost crashed the car in the first corner of this stage. I am happy this day is over. Tomorrow is a new day,” Munster surmised.
Bassas continued to edge ahead in the ERC3 lead fight, steadily building his gap over Sindre Furseth in another 208 Rally4 to 26.3s by winning six out of Friday’s nine stages.
Likewise Furuseth continued to build his gap over newly crowned ERC3 and ERC3 Junior Champion Ken Torn, who is now a minute off the lead.
Reigning ERC Champion Chris Ingram – who is competing in a rally for the first time in 2020 driving a Toksport-prepared Renault Clio Rally5 – is ninth in ERC3, over two minutes off the fastest Rally5 runner.
Ingram’s choice to take hard slicks on Friday morning backfired, calling it “the worst tyre choice we could make” and finished the day 7m20.5s off the top spot in class.
Dariusz Polonski remains ahead in ERC2 despite dropping half a minute on SS5, steadily rebuilding his lead over Tibor Érdi Jr during the remainder of Friday afternoon.
Érdi simply needs to get to the finish line on Saturday to secure a third ERC2 title, as nearest rival Zelindo Melegari crashed his Alpine A110 out of third place on Artenara.
Leading positions after SS9
1 Iván Ares/David Vázquez (Hyundai) 1h06m58.8s
2 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (Ford) +7.5s
3 Nil Solans/Xavi Moreno (Škoda) +9.0s
4 Yoann Bonato/Benjamin Boulloud (Citroën) +39.2s
5 José António Suárez/Alberto Iglesias (Škoda) +1m08.1s
6 Luis Monzón/Jose Carlos Deniz (Citroën) +1m10.6s
7 Oliver Solberg/Aaron Johnston (Volkswagen) +1m30.1s
8 Alexey Lukyanuk/Alexey Arnautov (Citroën) +1m31.9s
9 Marijan Griebel/Pirmin Winklhofer (Citroën) +1m33.0s
10 Yeray Lemes/Rogelio Penate (Hyundai) +1m41.9s