Mārtiņš Sesks has claimed his second career European Rally Championship victory by winning Rally Poland, as Hayden Paddon yet again extended his championship lead.
Sesks and Paddon had been engaged in a rally-long battle, but 23-year-old Sesks was able to edge ahead of former World Rally Championship driver Paddon as Paddon relaxed his pace on the final day with one eye on the championship picture.
Sesks’s victory confirmed three different drivers, in three different cars on three different tires have won the first three rounds of this year’s ERC.
Local favorite and last year’s Rally Poland winner Miko Marczyk rounded out the podium.
Marczyk threatened to repeat his victory in 2023, setting the pace on the pre-event qualifying stage and then leading overnight on Friday in his Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 after topping the Mikołajki Arena superspecial.
But a trip off the road on the first forest stage of the rally dumped him down to 11th and left him powerless to fight the two leaders.
Sesks had been just 22nd fastest on the 1.5-mile superspecial, but immediately rose to second after Saturday’s opener with fastest time over championship leader Paddon.
Paddon, who had been second overnight, clung onto the lead by just 0.2 seconds but duly extended that to 1.4s by the end of the loop.
The Sesks response was mighty though, as last year’s Rally Liepāja winner came out fighting.
Fastest on the first stage of the afternoon by a whopping 7.6s, Sesks moved into a lead that he wouldn’t relinquish thereafter.
Paddon aimed to keep the pressure on, winning Sunday’s first stage to trim Sesks’ lead to 7.4s.
But realizing one of his tires had punctured after the test altered Paddon’s game plan, as with just one spare in the trunk he chose not to risk another on the next three stages – preferring instead to settle for second and the strong championship points that come with it.
While Sesks continued to set the pace, Paddon had decided he’d use the afternoon to do the “boring thing” and save his tires for the powerstage, but a front-right tire falling off the rim in the afternoon put him back in the same position he had been in the morning.
Paddon therefore didn’t go for broke on the powerstage – which was won by Mads Østberg – and came home 39.6s behind the starring Sesks at the head of the field who took his first ERC win not on home soil.
But Sesks already seemed more concerned defending his Rally Liepāja victory in June.
“This is nice to be here in Poland, great practice for Liepāja,” he said.
“There’s hard work to do before that but it’s a good sign that we have the speed.”
Paddon was a touch frustrated at the finish: “Today’s been a really tough day, we’ve basically done all of today without any spare tires,” he said.
“It hasn’t gone to plan but we got the result.”
Marczyk ended up in no man’s land – not quite at the same level as Sesks and Paddon but quicker than everyone else to recover to third position.
Fourth was an extremely hard-fought battle between 2021 WRC2 champion Østberg and Hyundai Customer Racing junior driver Josh McErlean.
Østberg had struggled to find the right feeling from his Citroën C3 Rally2 on the first morning and languished in eighth, but began to climb his way up the leaderboard from Saturday afternoon onwards.
Østberg started the final day just 1.5s adrift of McErlean but the young Irishman responded to the Norwegian’s threat impressively on Sunday’s opener, outpacing Østberg by 2.2s.
However the Østberg fightback came on the very next test as he closed to within just 0.1s of McErlean on SS10, and then pulled another 0.1s away on SS11 to draw the pair level with five stages to go.
But McErlean made Østberg’s task simpler for him when he suffered a fourth-gear spin in the ruts and dropped 20s on the afternoon’s first stage.
The Hyundai driver eventually had to settle for seventh.
Mikko Heikkilä came out on top of an all-Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo battle with Mathieu Franceschi – the Finn scoring his first ERC points since that sensational yet heartbreaking performance on the season-opening Rally Serras de Fafe.
But Heikkilä’s Sunday pace was so strong that he only finished 3.8s behind Østberg, while Franceschi was shaded by 12.9s.
Simone Tempestini had been as high as third overall early on but had to settle for eighth.
It had looked to be ninth as Andrea Mabellini was ahead, but the Italian retired on the third-to-last stage as he came into a right-hander too fast and rolled his Škoda after heavy contact with some hay bales.
Mabellini eventually escaped from the field he had rolled into but parked his car up a few hundred meters further along the road; the damage too great to continue.
In a bid to boost his confidence after a difficult run of rallies, WRC2 driver Erik Cais finished ninth overall with reigning ERC champion Efrén Llarena in 10th.
The final points positions went to Filip Mareš, Dennis Rådström, Pontus Tidemand, Grzegorz Grzyb and Simone Campedelli.
Reigning British Rally champion Osian Pryce placed just outside the points in 16th as he struggled both as first car on the road on Friday and learning the Škoda which he had never driven competitively prior to the weekend.
One high profile retirement was last year’s Polish champion Tom Kristensson, who finished second on Rally Poland 12 months earlier.
However from the outset the Swede believes it was clear this was not his competition as he picked up a puncture, suffered a broken gear lever and broke a steering arm all in the space of two stages.
Kristensson chose to retire his Citroën in service, taking no part in Sunday’s action.
Rally Poland saw the Renault Clio Rally3 make its international debut and thus compete against the Ford Fiesta Rally3 for the very first time.
However – as perhaps to be expected given his experience and accomplishments – Jon Armstrong dominated the category in his updated Fiesta Rally3 Evo as Clio driver Paulo Soria rolled on Saturday.
A competitive 16-car field lined up for battle in the first Junior ERC round of the season, but Ola Nore jr made the competition his own to win by almost a minute in his Renault Clio Rally4.
Norbert Maior and Victor Hansen completed the podium, while DirtFish-backed Max McRae salvaged sixth on his ERC debut after a rally that was complicated by an overshoot and small mechanical gremlins.
In the overall ERC championship, Paddon is now 37 points clear of Sesks and Østberg who are joint second and in-turn just a single point of Yoann Bonato who was absent in Poland.