Home driver Mārtiņš Sesks scored a dominant Tet Rally Liepāja victory, his second consecutive European Rally Championship event win.
Sesks won seven of nine completed stages, including Sunday’s powerstage, to win by 41.4 seconds over Hayden Paddon. The ERC points leader was content to settle for second, and four points on the powerstage, with fellow World Rally Championship event winner Mads Østberg completing the podium.
Having yet to finish lower than second in his ERC campaign, Paddon retains a healthy 30-point championship lead at the season’s halfway point. But momentum is with second-placed Sesks ahead of next month’s Royal Rally of Scandinavia.
On the back of his Rally Poland victory in May, Sesks was in dominant form, leading the rally from start to finish. As others struggled in the dust of the opening stage, the Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 driver opened an immediate 16.4s lead over Østberg’s Citroën C3 Rally2.
As rain fell, three more consecutive stage wins extended Sesks’ advantage to more 30s before he dropped three seconds on Saturday night’s Liepāja City superspecial after facing the worst of the wet weather.
By this time, Paddon had consolidated second position in his Hyundai i20 N Rally2. Paddon admitted to not being brave enough in the dust early on, but was quickly able to leapfrog Østberg and the Ford Fiesta Rally2 of Robert Virves.
Sesks won the opening two stages of Sunday morning to effectively put victory beyond doubt – baring any major mishaps on their later re-runs.
Both Sesks and Paddon in particular were cautious on Liepieni 2 which had become heavily rutted. But saving themselves for powerstage paid off, as the pair again topped the timesheets, separated by just 0.005s in Sesks’ favor.
“Wow, perfect!” beamed Sesks, who savored a second victory in succession on home soil in Latvia. “The fans and everything, it was so special this weekend.”
Paddon knew that his overnight deficit to Sesks could not be overturned without the leader hitting trouble, and was happy to score 28 points towards his championship challenge.
Paddon said: “All in all, a good weekend, good points. The last three rounds we’ve been playing it a little bit safe by getting good points on the board but there’s more to come. First half of the season done, let’s try and go up a notch for the second half.”
Østberg struggled for grip on Sunday’s opening stages. But following mid-morning service, he consolidated third position with second fastest time on the penultimate stage despite reckoning the ruts made it “like driving a train”, adding: “You cannot feel anything, it’s just about surviving.”
Østberg didn’t score any powerstage points but finished a comfortable third: “It’s been a fighting weekend for us but we are happy to be on the podium and we can work from here.”
Hyundai-mounted Josh McErlean claimed fourth on the final test by going third fastest on the powerstage. Delighted with his best ERC result, McErlean paid tribute to co-driver James Fulton, who had been co-driving for the late Craig Breen.
“The past couple of months for this man has been hard, and to get in here and do the tremendous job he’s done this weekend has been unreal,” said McErlean. “It’s for him.”
McErlean’s gain was Virves’s loss. Last year’s Junior WRC champion lost some ground on Saturday afternoon with limited experience of the soft surface which was already getting rutted on the first pass. Further time loss came on Sunday morning with too conservative pacenotes that left him feeling like it was his “first time driving a rally car”.
But, having adjusted them prior to the second loop, a strong time on the penultimate stage looked set to secure him fourth overall. However, a misfire struck on the powerstage and consigned Virves to fifth.
“Things like this happen when you really don’t need them,” said a disappointed Virves. “But OK, our rally, I think it’s OK. Not the easiest weekend.”
Virves was only 1.8s clear of French gravel champion Matthieu Franceschi (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo), who reckoned he lost time on Sunday morning sliding too much in the fast sections.
Finnish champion Mikko Heikkilä fought back from a challenging first day to finish seventh. A broken differential left his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo “feel a little bit like only front-wheel-drive” and he was then hit with a 30s penalty for being late out of service that dropped him from fifth to ninth.
Second fastest on Sunday’s two opening stages, then quickest overall on SS9, helped Heikkilä overhaul Georg Linnamäe and reigning champion Efrén Llarena. He then went fourth fastest on the powerstage to finish less than 10s behind Franceschi in seventh. “It’s nice to drive when have a four-wheel-drive car,” he said.
Linnamäe (Hyundai) was eighth, having been first on the road through Saturday’s stages. “It’s been a tricky one,” he admitted. “Bit disappointed with today but you have to take it. After quali we thought it would be much worse so we’ll take what we can.”
Llarena (Škoda) was disappointed to finish ninth after a fuel-pump issue on the first day. He said: “We try our best. For sure, we cannot carry the speed, but we will come back stronger.”
Simone Campadelli (Škoda) completed the top 10 in his Škoda on his first attempt at the event, ahead of Czech duo Filip Mareš and Erik Cais.