Changeable conditions on the European Rally Championship’s Canary Islands Rally title decider has led to split tire strategy on the rally’s opening loop, putting the usual series frontrunners outside of the top 10.
Despite heavy rain moving in over Gran Canaria on Thursday evening, several drivers had gambled on slicks for the Friday morning loop, hoping the stages would dry up as cars passed through.
ERC points leader Alexey Lukyanuk, Team MRF’s Craig Breen, and Rally Hungary winner Andreas Mikkelsen were among those to go down the slicks route only to struggle for grip.
“[It’s] like being on an ice rink,” explained Mikkelsen at the end of stage four.
“I’m on the medium slick and it’s just impossible to do anything. I’m trying to push but it’s so easy to slide off the road.
Mikkelsen, who will make his World Rally Championship return on Monza Rally next month, joked that “we need a snow tire” due to the lack of grip, as he finished the morning loop down in 17th.
It was a similar story for Lukyanuk and Oliver Solberg, the two drivers still in the running for the overall title.
Lukyanuk had gone slowly in qualifying on purpose to run last on the road, hoping the stages would dry out by the time he came through.
After stage one Lukyanuk conceded that conditions were “absolutely not what we expected” having taken slicks all around, failing to break into the top five stage times during the rally’s first loop.
Solberg meanwhile had taken two rain tires and two slicks but fared little better, as the cross pattern of his tire selection was causing oversteer on right-handers and understeer when turning left.
Despite being off the front-running pace Lukyanuk’s hopes of a second ERC title are still looking good, as Solberg is only 11th and needs a top-two finish to have any hope of catching Lukyanuk in the points classification.
Lukyanuk complained a spectator car had been left parked “where it should not be” – a complaint echoed by his Saintéloc Junior Team team-mate Marijan Griebel – but was otherwise “happy with the situation in general” after finishing the first loop in ninth place.
The tire strategy split opened the way for the Spanish championship drivers who had taken wets to storm ahead at the front, with national drivers making up the podium places.
An enthusiastic Nil Solans “picked completely correct tires” and used the optimum rubber on his Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo to win three of the morning’s four stages, building a 9.7s lead over Iván Ares.
Last year’s rally winner Pepe López was widely expected to be among his fellow Spaniards at the head of the leaderboard but crashed out on Valsequillo, the rally’s opening stage.
Oversteering out of a medium right, López’s Citroën C3 R5 clipped a tree and broke the rear-left wheel, forcing him to retire on the spot and hand Solans pole position in the battle for the Spanish Superchampionship title.
M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux was one of the few drivers to get a dry set-up and slick tires working properly and ended the Friday morning loop in third, 1.1s ahead of local driver Yeray Lemes.
Despite fearing he was “losing a lot of time” with his set-up Fourmaux was the only non-Spaniard within half a minute of rally leader Solans, as Griebel completed the top five 33.8s off the pace.
Griebel had briefly been second after the San Mateo stage but dropped 17.2s on Artenara, dropping him into a tight battle with ERC1 Junior regular Erik Cais in sixth, 1.3s behind him.
Three-time Canary Islands winner Luis Monzón is a further 4.3s behind Cais in seventh, with recently crowned French Tarmac champion Yoann Bonato eighth ahead of Lukyanuk and Spanish title contender José António Suárez in 10th.
While Solberg’s odds of winning the overall ERC title are diminishing, his hopes of snatching the ERC1 Junior title look much better.
Hyundai junior driver Grégoire Munster, who started the rally six points ahead of Solberg in the Junior standings, suffered a puncture on the opening stage and has been well off the pace since.
A whole minute was dropped by Munster to Solberg on Artenara and while he eventually passed Efrén Llarena for seventh in Juniors on Tejeda, Solberg’s third in class is enough to take the title as things stand.
ERC3 leader Pep Bassas is remarkable 12th overall, only 0.6s behind Solberg despite driving a front-wheel-drive Peugeot 208 Rally4.
Spanish federation-backed junior driver Bassas won three out of four stages in his class during Friday morning, building a 16.2s lead over ERC returnee Sindre Furuseth.
Ken Torn has already secured both the ERC3 and ERC3 Junior titles – Spa Rally’s cancellation has left Bassas too far behind for Torn to be caught – but is still in the hunt for class victory, 22.8s off the lead.
Dariusz Polonski leads ERC2 in a Fiat 124 Abarth RGT by 42s over Tibor Érdi Jr’s Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X.
Érdi is all set to win a third ERC2 title ahead of Zelindo Melegari, who is 20.4s behind his title rival in third place at the wheel of an Alpine A110.
Leading positions after SS4
1 Nil Solans/Xavi Moreno (Škoda) 33m28.3s
2 Iván Ares/David Vázquez (Hyundai) +9.7s
3 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (Ford) +27.4s
4 Yeray Lemes/Rogelio Peñate (Hyundai) +28.5s
5 Marijan Griebel/Pirmin Winklhofer (Citroën) +33.8s
6 Erik Cais/Jindřiška Žáková (Ford) +35.1s
7 Luis Monzón/Jose Carlos Deniz (Citroën) +39.4s
8 Yoann Bonato/Benjamin Boulloud (Citroën) +48.5s
9 Alexey Lukyanuk/Alexey Arnautov (Citroën) +56.4s
10 José António Suárez/Alberto Iglesias (Škoda) +1m07.6s