Ricardo Moura has established a narrow 1.5-second Rally Azores lead over reigning ERC Junior champion Ken Torn, using his experience as 10-time Azorean champion to great effect.
With the first stage cancelled due to emergency vehicles being unable to traverse the Coroa de Mata stage, crews went directly to Graminhais, where Moura topped the times and established a 1.8s lead over Team MRF’s Efrén Llarena.
But Ford Fiesta Rally2 driver Torn responded on Tronqueira, reclaiming 1.6s out of Moura’s early lead with what looked to be a winning stage time.
But there was another quick local on the march – Ruben Rodrigues. Piloting his Citroën C3 Rally2, Rodrigues went fastest by 1.1s and climbed to sixth overall.
While Llarena didn’t clock a stage win on Saturday morning he still managed to stay in touch with the lead pair and is third, 4.3s off the top spot.
Llarena went in a different direction for road order selection than his rivals, electing to run down in 12th instead of early on as Moura and Torn had chosen. But unlike on the season opener, Rally Serras de Fafe, road order hasn’t played into the overall order so far.
Javier Pardo had won the qualifying stage and elected to start fifth. After his hard-fought fourth place in Fafe and two of the three drivers that finished ahead of him at the ERC season opener absent for Azores, he was an early favorite for the win.
But his podium ambitions have quickly disappeared after spins on both of Saturday morning’s pair of stages. In both instances, he had to find reverse to get pointing in the right direction again, and those delays have put him 36.8s off the pace in ninth.
Armindo Araújo was another Fafe frontrunner that struggled on the opening morning of Azores. There were no specific problems for the two-time PWRC champion but he’s already well off the pace, 40.2s behind Moura with two stages complete.
ERC returnee Simon Wagner leads the chasing pack in fourth place, 14s off the lead and with Llarena’s MRF team-mate Simone Campedelli only 4.2s behind.
Thanks to his Tronqueira stage win Rodrigues is now in the thick of the action, with Hyundai Team Portugal’s Bruno Magalhães only 1.5s behind in seventh overall.
It’s unlikely Magalhães will fight Rodrigues tooth and nail for the position, however. Magalhães is second behind rally leader Moura among the Portuguese championship runners and Rodrigues, who’s only registered for the local Azorean series, won’t be taking points off him.
Simone Tempestini, who’s competing in a replacement Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo after his last-stage crash on Fafe left his original chassis with alignment issues, is 31.7s off the lead in seventh. The 2016 Junior WRC champion has only 5.1s in hand to Pardo, the very same driver he was battling in the lead up to his Fafe crash.
Alberto Battistolli is a mere 0.1s behind Pardo and completes the top 10.
Jon Armstrong had been running ninth overall after Graminhais despite driving a less powerful Ford Fiesta Rally3, competing in the ERC3 category.
The current Junior WRC points leader looked set for a stunning stage time on Tronqueira, having been sixth-quickest on the splits, only 0.4s down on Llarena’s pace with only a mile of the stage remaining.
But disaster struck as his Fiesta ground to a halt after going through a watersplash, forcing him to retire.
Classification after SS3
1 Ricardo Moura/António Costa (Škoda) 36m24.0s
2 Ken Torn/Kauri Pannas (Ford) +1.5s
3 Efrén Llarena/Sara Fernández (Škoda) +4.3s
4 Simon Wagner/Gerald Winter (Škoda) +14.0s
5 Simone Campedelli/Tania Canton (Škoda) +18.2s
6 Rúben Rodrigues/Estevão Rodrigues (Citroën) +25.2s
7 Bruno Magalhães/Carlos Magalhães (Hyundai) +26.7s
8 Simone Tempestini/Sergiu Itu (Škoda) +31.7s
9 Javier Pardo/Adrián Pérez (Škoda) +36.8s
10 Alberto Battistolli/Simone Scattalin (Škoda) +36.9s