Hayden Paddon has snatched the first European Rally Championship victory of 2023 from Mikko Heikkilä after the Škoda driver suffered a front-left puncture on the final stage, dropping him from the lead to eighth.
This denied Heikkilä his first international rally win and the chance to be the first Finnish driver to win an ERC round since Esapekka Lappi in 2014.
After the opening day’s inconsistent weather, Sunday’s second leg brought relatively straightforward conditions, albeit after the first couple of stages, which were littered with some heavy patches of fog.
Heikkilä began the final day as he meant to go on, stretching his overnight lead of 4.2s to over 10 seconds on the first pass of Seixoso.
Meanwhile the battle for second began to heat up right from the first stage of the day, with Paddon gradually reeling in Mads Østberg, despite calling his performance on the 13th stage “terrible”.
But Heikkilä’s work to extend his lead quickly came undone on the first pass of Lameirinha, where the gap to Østberg was cut to just 2.9s, as Paddon also closed in to just 4.6s.
There was a change in positions on SS15 as Paddon got the better of Østberg to jump into second and close the gap to Heikkilä to just three seconds.
The 35-year-old kept going as he took a very minor 0.2s out of the lead on the 16th stage.
It was all to play for on the powerstage with the pair separated by just 2.8s after Paddon chipped away at the lead as the day continued, but there was heartbreak for Heikkilä who came so close to victory.
“No idea [what happened], of course it’s easy to have a puncture on these ruts because there is so many stones out there,” he said.
“I think even crying doesn’t help. But I’m happy with the rally, our pace was pretty OK.”
That meant after being in the battle for the win all day, Østberg settled for second, saying there was little else he could do at the end of the penultimate stage.
“I cannot do more,” he said. “At the end I can’t be disappointed because I don’t leave any time in there. I do my best but of course I feel not perfect when we are losing so much time.”
Georg Linnamäe came home in a lonely third place after a consistent drive throughout the weekend.
A fight between Mārtiņš Sesks and Mikołaj Marczyk had an early conclusion just two stages into the final day after Sesks was forced to make a stop due to a tire issue.
This meant he lost over two minutes to Marczyk – who went on to finish fourth – and finished 12th in the process, a disappointing end to what was a strong drive from last year’s Rally Liepāja winner.
Efrén Llarena tried his best to catch Yoann Bonato in fifth as the day went on, but the reigning ERC champion couldn’t catch the Citroën and was even displaced a further position at the end by a charging Craig Breen.
Breen, who started the day in 20th following a puncture on Saturday, put in a valiant drive throughout the final day, winning four stages to finish sixth.
But the comeback wasn’t without its drama as the Hyundai driver found himself almost rolling just a couple of corners from the finish on the opening stage of the second loop.
He managed to recover, albeit losing a few seconds and gaining some bodywork damage to front-right of his i20 N Rally2.
#FafeRally @Craig_Breen on two wheels on SS14#ERCLivepic.twitter.com/qscvMvh8xQ
— Markus Ippach 🇪🇺🤝🇺🇦 (@ma_ipp) March 12, 2023
Breen did see the funny side of it however, laughing both as he crossed the finish and during his post-stage interview.
“I was on two wheels for 60, 70 meters, in a rut, fifth gear,” he explained. “Very, very lucky to get away with that. Just hit a rut, the car gripped and it just spurred us up on to two wheels.”
Heikkilä crossed the finish to end up eighth overall, with Tom Kristensson and Miklós Csomós rounding out the top-10 with 5.9s separating the pair.
There were a number of retirements on the final day, with Alberto Battistolli pulling out before the action began due to a pre-existing shoulder injury.
Erik Cais and Andrea Mabellini were amongst the retirees with the former dropping out after a tire issue and the latter sustaining steering damage.