The European Rally Championship has featured some captivating battles for the top step this year, from Alexey Lukyanuk batting off two-time champion Giandomenico Basso on Rally di Roma to almost fumbling his win on Fafe Montelongo. Likewise, Ken Torn weathering the pressure of Pedro Antunes and Mārtiņš Sesks in ERC3 has provided a couple of nail-biting finishes.
However, the overall title battles have lacked a bit of that excitement.
Oliver Solberg’s setback in Latvia – where a broken exhaust dropped him several minutes and then needing to finish the repairs earned him a penalty for being late to check-in on Sunday morning also killed is hopes of bonus points – allowed Lukyanuk to streak ahead.
But Lukyanuk’s now had a trouble-filled event of his own; a five-minute penalty for early check-in on stage six of Rally Hungary left him to fight mostly for bonus points. He picked up only eight points in all but even with the setback, his title bid wasn’t as badly affected as you might think.
How calendar uncertainty influences the outcome
As it stands, the ERC still has two rounds to go; Canary Islands Rally and Spa Rally, which are scheduled to run on the weeks either side of the World Rally Championship season finale in December.
As a ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 sweeps across Europe, almost every rally still scheduled to run in 2020 is under question. Spa Rally, even though it’s the last of the two events to run on December 13/14, is probably going to have question marks until the week of the event given the extent of lockdown-type measures implemented by the Belgian government and have already led to Ypres Rally Belgium and World RX of Spa being called off. Those restrictions are currently set to expire the week of Spa Rally.
Canary Islands Rally is still looking as feasible as any international rally could possibly be right now.
All the stops are being pulled out by the organizers to avoid needing to cancel. The traditional service park in Parque de Santa Catalina, a tourist hotspot, has been binned for the stadium car park of Las Palmas’s professional football club.
It’s not the most visually appealing centerpiece for the rally to have its opening and closing ceremonies, but there will be more space for everyone to operate in. Needs must. Nobody will care if it means the rally gets to go ahead.
Going with the doomsday scenario – where both rallies get the chop – Lukyanuk unsurprisingly wins his second ERC title ahead of Solberg. But the final points totals in that scenario hint at a rule which could shift the odds slightly if we get the ideal scenario of both remaining rallies running.
For ERC1 (the main one), ERC2 (production) and ERC3 (two-wheel-drive) titles, drivers drop their worst score and keep the rest, regardless of the number of remaining rallies that end up running in 2020.
That means Lukynauk’s got a very small safety net in the case of an absolute disaster. If one more rally runs and he gets an outright zero score there, he can at least put those eight points he scored in Hungary to use and make Solberg’s job a bit harder.
Solberg’s more at home on gravel for now given his limited experience on asphalt, and, unlucky for him, both the remaining two rounds are on the latter. If only one out of two rallies goes ahead then he’s up against it, especially if that sole rally ends up being in the Canary Islands.
He’ll need to finish at least third and pick up seven out of the 10 bonus points to even draw level with Lukyanuk if the points leader has a shocker. And, while Solberg had very promising pace on all the sealed-surface events, he’ll face a Spanish Inquisition on Gran Canaria.
The national championship will be in town and, between last year’s rally winner and reigning Spanish champion Pepe López, Rally Fafe Montelongo podium finisher Iván Ares, and former factory Peugeot Rally Academy ERC driver José Antonio Suárez, he’ll be up against three experienced asphalt drivers who know the event well.
Lukyanuk also has three wins there – two overall and one ERC win behind Enrique Cruz’s Porsche 997 GT3 – making the job of making inroads harder still.
Despite being only six points behind Solberg on paper, Gregoire Munster doesn’t really have the same chance to close on Lukyanuk as Solberg, thanks in part to the dropped scores dynamic.
His strong points tally has come through sheer consistency more than anything, so as it stands he’ll need to take a bigger points drop than the other two at the end of the season. That is unless he ends up having a nightmare outing in either of the remaining rallies, which would ruin his long-shot hopes at the overall title anyway and make the dropped scores aspect redundant. Nor can he catch Lukyanuk in a single event – he needs both rallies to run to even mathematically stay in the race.
Razor-thin margins in Juniors
The dynamic is radically different in the Junior categories. While Solberg is head of Munster in the senior championship, they’re the other way around in ERC1 Junior by a single point.
In one sense it was a shame Hungary wasn’t the Juniors season finale; it would have made for a thrilling final-stage conclusion. Munster went into the final stage set to take a one-point lead, but Solberg finding six seconds on Efrén Llarena would have given him the extra points needed to stay at the top of the title race. And they’d have been level had Munster dropped four seconds to fellow Hyundai junior Callum Devine on the final stage, as a single bonus point was on the line between the pair.
Neither of those things happened, and now Munster is a point up. And in this race, each scenario of rallies run has a clear beneficiary. In the Junior classes, it’s the four best scores that contribute to the total, not all scores minus one.
That’s great news for Munster if neither of the final two rounds run; instead of losing on countback, he keeps all four results and wins it by the narrowest of margins. But if at least one event goes ahead, Solberg’s got a small boost if he tries to make up the difference.
Think of it like this: while in principle the same number of points are on offer for the drivers at every rally, each drivers’ ceiling is different now that four scores are already on the board. The drivers are now racing to beat their own scores from earlier in the year as much as they’re racing each other.
That aforementioned Liepaja disaster led to only 16 Junior points for Solberg, while Munster mustered 24 in Rome. In the most basic terms, Solberg has a lower hurdle to clear to improve his score than Munster does.
Even if Munster beats Solberg on the road, he may still fall behind anyway, depending on their finishing positions and bonus points. The only way for Munster to guarantee he remains in the lead after one more rally is to outscore Solberg by eight points. If both rallies run, there are too many combinations to conceive what might happen in Spa.
A full calendar scenario would transform the hopes of Rally Team Spain’s Llarena, who shot to third in the standings after his overall podium in Hungary, opening up the possibility of a three-way title fight.
Canary Islands Rally promises to be Llarena’s best hope of a maximum points haul. He’s been there twice already so has event knowledge on his side, and now has five events in an R5 under his belt heading to his own country’s ERC round. A 40-point run there would put him on 119 points and with a zero score available to deduct – owing to a broken exhaust manifold ending his hopes in Fafe Montelongo – he’d suddenly be in a position to be the dark horse in a three-way showdown in Spa. It’s a tough ask but not impossible.
Torn on the cusp of ERC3 lockout
Ken Torn, whose ERC entry is effectively a semi-works M-Sport effort thanks to the extra engineering support he gets, is on track to win both of the two-wheel-drive titles. The Junior title is pretty much under lock and key; even a perfect-score for Pep Bassas on Gran Canaria would leave him six points short and needing another win and bonus points aplenty in Belgium.
The ERC3 senior title has a slightly different dynamic through its best scores minus one rule. A maximum points haul next time out is still a must for Bassas but if the service park then head to Spa afterwards, a disaster for Torn would open up a path to the title even if Bassas doesn’t get the win.