Tempestini takes shock win in dramatic ERC opener

Multiple lead changes, crashes, punctures and a McRae Junior win were all part of ERC's 2024 opener

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A European Rally Championship season opener filled with shock twists and turns ended with a surprise winner, as Simone Tempestini scored an unexpected victory on Rally Hungary.

A switch of rally base from Nyíregyháza to Veszprém also meant a change of surface from asphalt to rough gravel for Hungary’s ERC round; it also migrated from being the season finale to season opener for 2024.

Veszprém’s ERC debut was filled with drama from start to end. Before a wheel had been turned in anger, Mads Østberg was already out of the running, missing the start due to a medical issue.

Once underway the rally lead changed hands several times. Mathieu Franceschi, the 2022 French Gravel champion, won his first ERC stage on SS2 to assume the lead, only to roll on the following stage and drop 40 seconds.

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Mikko Heikkilä was looking good for victory until the wheels literally fell off

That handed the lead to Mikko Heikkilä, who then spent much of the rally battling fellow Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 driver Mārtiņš Sesks for the top spot.

Sesks had briefly taken the lead from Heikkilä on Saturday afternoon, with Heikkilä suggesting he had a power issue caused by his car’s pop-off valve. By the end of the day, Heikkilä led once more, as Sesks had ended Saturday’s final stage with a puncture.

But it dramatically went wrong for both victory contenders on Sunday. On stage 10, Heikkilä’s front-left wheel fell off his Yaris on a bumpy but high-speed section, the outer part of the wheel appearing to shear off from the hub. Seconds later the entire suspension assembly was torn off by the rough gravel road, leaving him to park up and retire a few meters down the road.

It was a familiar scenario for Heikkilä; he lost a potential maiden ERC win on last year’s Rally Serras de Fafe with a final-stage puncture.

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Sesks found himself in the box seat after Heikkikä's woes – but he would later fall by the wayside too

“It seems to always be like this, luck is not with us,” rued Heikkilä.

“I cannot tell you what happened, we suddenly lost the wheel. First the rim broke, then we lost all of it. Nothing special that we hit though, on this kind of road you hit lots of things but I can’t think what we hit that made us lose the wheel.

“At the moment it’s difficult to be positive.”

That gave Sesks a golden opportunity, passing both Tempestini and reigning champion Hayden Paddon on the same stage Heikkilä retired on to move from fourth to first.

But on the penultimate stage disaster struck for Team MRF’s lead contender. Sesks clipped a rock and spun, breaking the left-rear suspension and having to retire.

That set up an unexpected final-stage showdown between Tempestini and Paddon for victory, separated by 7.7s. Paddon had been managing tire wear throughout the rally but was finally in a position to push on and score a last-gasp win, taking 3.9s out of Tempestini’s Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 by the powerstage’s second split.

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Paddon had been struggling with tire management throughout the rally though had remained in touch with the leaders

Disaster struck shortly after; the reigning ERC champion picked up a front-left puncture and lost over half a minute, falling to fourth place and leaving Tempestini to clinch the win; it was his first ERC podium finish in 32 starts across the past 12 years.

Meanwhile Franceschi’s strong recovery meant he finished only 17s away from the top spot. He won five of the rally’s 13 stages; he blitzed the powerstage to go fastest by 11.1s and clinch five bonus points, putting him only four points behind Tempestini in the standings.

“I pushed really hard,” said Franceschi, breaking down in tears at the finish line. It was his first podium finish in the ERC; he contested the full season last year but was yet to manage a top-five finish in the series.

Miklós Csomós clinched his second career ERC podium with second place on his home round of the championship. He was never in contention for victory but a slow puncture on Saturday afternoon aside, faced no real dramas; his safe approach allowed him to move gradually up the orders as others suffered.

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What could have been? Franceschi finished 17s from victory after losing 40s on Friday morning...

The top five was rounded out by Erik Cais, who was battling to fend off qualifying stage winner Miko Marczyk. The latter Fabia RS driver had spent most of Saturday fighting Csomós for fifth but fell back with two punctures; both Cais and Marczyk punctured on the final stage. There were contrasting emotions in each cockpit.

“We are here but it was not our day,” rued Marczyk, who had hoped to be fighting “two or three’ positions higher on the leaderboard.

Cais meanwhile was just glad to have reached the finish: “I never pushed like this on a puncture! What a crazy ride,” he said after the powerstage.

Andrea Mabellini just edged out Jon Armstrong in their rally-long battle for position, ending seventh and eighth respectively. Simon Wagner and Filip Mareš, who was the sole Toyota in the points after the demise of Heikkilä and Sesks, completed the top 10.

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Max McRae celebrated a first ERC Junior victory

Any hopes 2022 ERC champion Efrén Llarena had of starting his campaign on a high were quickly extinguished on stage three; a nose-heavy landing over a jump broke the radiator on his Fabia, forcing him to retire.

DirtFish-backed Max McRae scored his first ERC Junior class win on his first appearance in the Tagai Racing Technology Peugeot 208 Rally4.

He’d been running in the podium positions early on but moved more than half a minute clear on stage six. Early pace-setter Jaspar Vaher suffered a puncture on the same test.

“It’s very special, especially on such a rough event,” said McRae of his victory. “I played it quite smart and used our brain, so it’s a great feeling.”

Opel Junior factory driver Calle Carlberg had been McRae’s nearest rival after Vaher’s issue but his event ended on Sunday; the ADAC Opel e-Rally Cup champion suffered a puncture on stage eight and the flailing rubber had impacted a wishbone, which subsequently broke on stage 10.

Mille Johansson pulled off a last-gasp heist for the final podium place; he’d lost over eight minutes at the end of Saturday and dropped way down the order but on the powerstage, he vaulted past Motorsport Ireland pairing Aofie Raftery and Jack Brennan to take third place.