Andreas Mikkelsen edged further ahead in the lead of Rally Hungary at the end of a dramatic day of European Rally Championship action, ending with a second puncture in three stages for Oliver Solberg.
On his return to competitive rallying after 11 months on the sidelines Mikkelsen was already on song, winning five out of eight stages on Saturday to build a 23.6-second lead over Team MRF’s Craig Breen.
With no championship position to worry about Mikkelsen was able to take 8.6s out of Breen across the second pass of Saturday’s four tests, while 2018 ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk was taken out of the equation by a five-minute penalty after being Mikkelsen’s closest rival in the morning.
“It’s been a very good day,” said Mikkelsen at the end of SS9.
“We had an amazing day in the car, staying within the limits and still we have a good gap for tomorrow. I couldn’t ask for much more than this.”
For his main rival at the head of the field, it couldn’t have gone more wrong.
Checking in five minutes early for stage six meant Lukyanuk went from 5.1s off the lead in second place to five minutes behind in 22nd place, and had barely climbed into the top 20 by the end of the day.
His penalty has opened up the title race – if at least one of Canary Islands Rally or Spa Rally run as scheduled – with a top 10 finish in Hungary looking somewhat out of reach and no bonus points coming his way on Saturday either.
Lukyanuk hinted that given his situation, he might not even bother turning up for Sunday’s stages.
“I can drink whiskey, beer, or try to make one point from whatever. I will decide later,” said the enigmatic title leader.
Solberg should have been best placed to capitalize on Lukyanuk’s woe, sitting second in the championship and 42 points off the top spot with 40 available this weekend.
But his rally also went off the rails for the second round in a row.
After a broken exhaust led to a no-score on Rally Fafe Montelogo last time out, Solberg picked up punctures on the re-runs of Füzér and Mád in Hungary, costing him about two minutes in all and dropping him down to ninth.
“It’s so annoying,” said Solberg. “Two punctures, you don’t know where it is. Everyone else is like ‘I had a moment, I had a moment’, and they don’t get anything.”
One of those drivers having ‘a moment’ was Solberg’s chief ERC1 Junior title rival Grégoire Munster.
On Fóny, Munster said he “had the biggest moment of my life” when he ended up sideways through one of the tree-lined sections of stage, yet finished only 1.9s off the pace.
A cautious approach to the final stage – with the final stages of the Saturday afternoon loop running in the dark – meant Munster was slightly off the pace on Mád, but the Hyundai junior still has over half a minute in hand over Norbert Herczig in fourth.
Fourth place had looked set to be held by Emil Lindholm overnight, as Breen’s MRF team-mate had steadily climbed the leaderboard and reduced the gap to Munster to only 8.6s.
Lindholm’s charge towards the podium came to an end on Mád when he went off the road and got stuck, handing the place to four-time Hungarian national champion Herczig.
Efrén Llarena and Marijan Griebel, who are team-mates under the Saintéloc Junior Team umbrella, are engaged in a close battle for fifth.
The pair of Citroën C3 R5s are only 2.1s apart after Saturday’s eight stages, with Griebel’s gains mostly coming from SS7 when Llarena was stuck behind Miko Marczyk after the Fabia driver stopped to change a puncture.
Niki Mayr-Melnhof is also in the thick of the fight over fifth place, only 2.8s behind Llarena in seventh.
A strong start to the day for Mayr-Melnhof was undone when contact on Újhuta bent his steering, costing him over a minute in pure pace across the last four stages of the day.
Another Hyundai junior, Callum Devine, moved up to eighth as a consequence of Solberg’s second puncture woe, though will have a fight on his hands to keep it that with only five seconds in hand over the Škoda.
Simon Wagner completes the top 10, 11.6s behind Solberg.
Tibor Érdi Jr appears all set for a third ERC2 win in a row at the wheel of his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X, with over four minutes in hand over Zelindo Melegari’s Subaru Impreza.
The ERC3 title race has swung back in Ken Torn’s favour, even as the Ford Fiesta Rally4 driver had been “driving like my grandmother” to preserve his lead at the end of the day.
Torn had suffered a puncture on the first pass of Mád and fallen behind the Rally Team Spain Peugeot 208 Rally4 of Pep Bassas, his nearest rival for both the ERC and ERC3 Junior titles.
But the tables turned on the second pass of Füzér, as Torn took over half a minute out of Bassas and retook the lead he’d lost two stages earlier.
Despite Torn comparing his driving to that of an elderly relative, his pace was far from geriatric, taking another stage win to double his advantage over Bassas to 27.9s.
With only the best four scores counting in ERC3 Junior, Torn can potentially wrap up said title with a maximum points haul, which he is still able to achieve thanks to picking up five bonus points as overnight leader.
Junior WRC alum Raul Badiu was somewhat fortuitous to finish the day in third place, already over two minutes behind leader Torn.
Ola Nore had been impressive on his ERC debut in a Renault Clio RSR Rally5, spending much of the afternoon in the final podium position after the retirement of Norbert Maior’s Peugeot 208 Rally4 and Martin László on the first pass of Mád.
But Nore’s rally began to unravel on the second pass of Fóny, where he hit a chicane and picked up a puncture. The intercom with his co-driver then stopped working on the day’s final stage, the two issues combining to cost him almost two minutes and dropping him behind Badu’s first-generation 208 R2.
Leading positions after SS9
1 Mikkelsen (Škoda) 1h07m55.9s
2 Breen (Hyundai) +23.6s
3 Munster (Hyundai) +1m21.3s
4 Herczig (Volkswagen) +1m57.0s
5 Llarena (Citroën) +2m13.1s
6 Griebel (Citroën) +2m15.2s
7 Mayr-Melnhof (Ford) +2m15.9s
8 Devine (Hyundai) +2m31.8s
9 Solberg (Škoda) +2m36.8s
10 Wagner (Škoda) +2m48.4s