Oliver Solberg was astounded to still be leading the European Rally Championship’s Rally Liepaja after a mistake on the day-ending Strazde stage, which also terminally caught out closest rival Nikolay Gryazin.
Only 1.3 seconds separated Solberg and Gryazin after the first two stages but Solberg got his victory hopes back on track with a big win on Mundigciems, over five seconds faster than anyone and crucially 6.2s up on Hyundai Junior driver Gryazin.
Solberg’s fortunes nearly took a turn for the worse on Strazde – which used much of the Andumi stage’s roads from this morning – when he spun in the dust of Mikko Heikkilä, who was struggling with a puncture ahead.
Struggling to see, Solberg stayed parked and waited for visibility to improve before setting off again, fully expecting to have lost over 20 seconds.
But he dropped only six seconds to stage winner Alexey Lukyanuk, and heads into Sunday with exactly 10s in hand over Citroën works driver Mads Østberg.
“Only five seconds off the pace? Crazy, it’s crazy,” said a stunned Solberg.
“Look at the time. I spun, I stood still, I lost 20 seconds and still I’m not far behind. I honestly don’t understand. Unbelievable.”
Gryazin’s chances of a third Liepaja win were ended on Strazde, which caught out several drivers, as he crashed out and heavily damaged his Hyundai i20 R5.
Erik Cais, one of the Czech motorsport federation’s junior drivers, was another beaten by Strazde’s tricky roads, though in his case he put the blame on his pacenotes.
Østberg was unhappy at the end of Saturday’s final stage, commenting that his C3 R5 had “some issues” and had “lost time” on Strazde. But his place on the leaderboard didn’t reflect his feelings, although he is not registered for ERC points.
“I tried to change my approach a little bit, accepting we need to test and focusing on that. I was a bit more calm and focusing on how I’m feeling with the car,” Østberg explained after SS3.
“For sure it’s difficult not to follow the competition. I want to be competitive and to win but I have a plan to test the car and I have to follow that plan, and it’s hard to be on top when you are trying several things. I have to accept that.”
After a tough start to the day down in eighth, ERC points leader Lukyanuk is now up to third place, edging his day-long battle with Emil Lindholm and closing to only 6.2s behind Østberg with his stage win on Strazde.
Saintéloc Junior Team’s eldest driver had dropped behind Lindholm into fifth when the Team MRF driver managed to set the second-fastest time on Mundigciems. But a scrappy run on Strazde that included two spins sent Lindholm backwards, underestimating how slippery the road conditions would be and sliding down to sixth.
Eerik Pietarinen leapt from seventh to fourth on Strazde with a brave run, ripping the rear bumper off his first-generation Škoda Fabia en-route to third-fastest time.
His advantage to fifth-placed Craig Breen is a minuscule 0.2s, as the Hyundai driver recorded his first top-five stage time of the rally on Strazde but couldn’t quite fend off Pietarinen’s late charge.
Lindholm is 6.2s behind his MRF team-mate Breen and has 11.7s in hand over Grégoire Munster in seventh.
Heikkilä’s SS4 puncture cost him further time it didn’t cost him any positions, ending the day in eighth.
Latvian championship runner Ville Pynnönen dropped over 1m30s on Strazde, promoting Raul Jeets to ninth and Cais into the top 10 despite his off-road moment on SS4.
Miko Marczyk had been in the battle for a top 10 place but dropped out of the top 20 on Mundigciems, stopping to change a puncture and losing several minutes.
Ken Torn lost the lead of ERC3 Junior on SS4, dropping 8.8s to new leader Mārtiņš Sesks as he got stuck in Miika Hokkanen’s dust.
Hokkanen had suffered a brake fluid leak in the morning on his Peugeot 208 Rally4 but then had the brakes fail entirely on Strazde, dropping two minutes and finishing right in front of Torn on the road.
Despite bending the steering on his Ford Fiesta Rally4 Sesks now has a 0.3s lead over Torn overnight, while Hokkanen fell from fourth to seventh, avoiding dropping all the way to eighth as Pep Bassas stopped to change a puncture on his 208 Rally4.
Dennis Rådström continues to hold third in ERC3, 12.2s off the lead, with Reinis Nitišs and Gregor Jeets completing the top five.
Tibor Érdi Jr extended his lead in ERC2 to 51.9s, as fellow Mitsubishi Lancer driver Ainars Igaveņš struggled in the dust on Strazde and fell to third, behind Dmitry Feofanov.
Results after SS4
1 Solberg (Volkswagen) 44m25.1s
2 Østberg (Citroën) +10.0s
3 Lukyanuk (Citroën) +16.2s
4 Pietarinen (Škoda) +30.6s
5 Breen (Hyundai) +30.8s
6 Lindholm (Škoda) +37.0s
7 Munster (Hyundai) +48.7s
8 Heikkilä (Škoda) +1m04.8s
9 Jeets (Škoda) +1m50.4s
10 Cais (Ford) +1m54.5s