While the rallying world waits for the World Rally Championship to kick off next month, the European Rally Championship is already back in business with its second round, Rally Liepāja.
Alexey Lukyanuk, who won the season-opening Rally di Roma, heads the entry list as he attempts to reclaim the title he won in 2018. So too is Hyundai factory driver Craig Breen, who’ll be representing Team MRF once more alongside Emil Lindholm.
But as Lukyanuk himself says, there’s “six or seven” contenders for victory on Liepāja this week. We’ve picked out the ones we think will be Lukyanuk’s biggest challengers, plus a couple of drivers in the Rally4-based ERC3 category you should definitely keep an eye on.
Last year’s battle for victory was a head-to-head battle between Lukyanuk and Oliver Solberg, whose experience in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 was limited to only two Latvian championship events. And on top of that the ERC wasn’t even his focus in 2019; Solberg slotted Liepāja in between outings for Subaru at ARA’s Olympus and Idaho rallies.
Despite his massive experience deficit to Lukyanuk, it was Solberg who triumphed, and convincingly so. Solberg took the lead on stage one and didn’t look back, steadily edging further ahead to build a 22.7-second advantage by the finish.
There’s an argument that Lukyanuk wasn’t giving it full gas; he’d crashed out of the first two ERC rallies of the season and desperately needed to get some solid points on the board to try and defend his crown. But either way, it was a massively impressive performance from Solberg, one that confirmed him as one of this generation’s brightest young talents.
Expect more of the same this year.
This event’s got a bit of a WRC feel to it. In addition to Solberg, WRC2 championship leader Mads Østberg will be driving a works-backed Citroën C3 R5, run as usual by PH Sport. For Østberg, Solberg and others (we’ll get to that), Liepāja is useful preparation for Rally Estonia next month, especially the first day through the forests outside Talsi.
Østberg’s WRC experience is well known; he’s got lots of it. And the car should suit him, in so much as he’s led its development since moving to a full-time role as Citroën’s factory driver in WRC2 last year. As for the car itself, the Citroën had a wobbly start to its life in the hyper-competitive Rally2 category but it’s now in the same league as its more esteemed rivals like the Škoda Fabia and Ford Fiesta.
But the real question is, will it be third-time lucky? Østberg’s got something of a curse when it comes to ERC. On both Rally Islas Canarias in 2016 and Rally Rzeszowski in 2017, he led until hitting trouble: he crashed out on the former and was plagued by a recurring power steering issue on the latter.
But he has a plan for that; while he is a seeded driver, but he hasn’t registered for ERC points. Smart.
This is Gryazin’s home away from home in more ways than one. Before signing for Hyundai’s WRC2 junior team this year, the 2018 ERC1 Junior champion had spent his entire career with Sports Racing Technologies, which is based on the outskirts of Latvia’s capital, Riga. And due to FIA regional rally rules, he has to fly the Latvian flag instead of his Russian stripes when competing in the ERC.
More importantly though, Gryazin’s also the only multiple winner of Rally Liepāja, scoring back-to-back successes in 2017 and ’18 – the first of those coming against a very young Kalle Rovanperä, who’d only just turned 17 years old days before the rally.
Most of Gryazin’s success to date has been at the wheel of a Škoda Fabia R5 but he’s been acclimatising to the i20 R5 as the year has worn on, taking his first win with the Korean manufacturer at the Latvian season opener, Rally Rokiškis, earlier this month. Adding a third Liepāja win is definitely possible, even against the likes of Solberg and Lukyanuk.
There’s three Finns in R5s at Rally Liepāja. Emil Lindholm in the Team MRF car and 2018 Finnish national champion Eerik Pietarinen are known quantities and should be in the mix with their Škoda Fabias, but it’s the third Finn that will be one to keep an eye on: Mikko Heikkilä
This is 28-year-old Heikkilä’s first time competing outside his native Finland, having spent most of his rallying career pedaling a front-wheel-drive Honda Civic Type-R. On his R5 debut in 2018, competing in the Finnish national championship, he finished seventh, a bit over a minute behind Pietarinen and 14s behind Lindholm.
Fast forward to 2020 but with only four more rallies in an R5 under his belt and he beat Pietarinen to victory on Jämsän Äijät Ralli. (the event Esapekka Lappi was supposed to compete on before his engine failed).
Heikkilä’s highly unlikely to be a victory contender – there are too many top-level drivers in this field – but this is a big chance to show what he can do. He could end up beating quite a lot of drivers with extensive R5 experience this weekend.
A name once more famous in roundy-roundy circles, Reinis Nitišs spent his early years in professional motorsport as a frontrunner in the World Rallycross Championship. But these days he’s having a proper crack at making it in rallying, after several years of Rally Liepāja entries and the odd appearance in other Latvian championship rallies.
This year’s run in Liepāja – his fifth in six years – is a crunch test of his progress in the Rally4 category, which he’s switched to for this year.
He scored a class podium on Rally Rokiškis but now he’s up against some of the fastest Rally4 drivers in the world: Rally di Roma ERC3 winner Ken Torn, Junior WRC nearly-man Dennis Rådström, Miika Hokkanen and Martiņš Sesks, who has home advantage and was crowned ERC3 Junior champion here in 2018.
On paper this should be a three-way fight between Sesks, Torn and Rådström. But if Nitišs is able to keep within touching distance of them on the timesheets, it’s a sign he could go on to be as quick in rallying as he was in rallycross.
Spain is still looking for its next Carlos Sainz. First Dani Solà came and went, then Dani Sordo arrived on the scene and after years of near misses, made the top step of a WRC podium. But they’re still looking for another WRC champion.
Rally Team Spain has been pushing to find the next Sainz, running a Peugeot 208 for several years in the ERC3 Junior category. Efrén Llarena won the title last year with them and is competing this weekend in the main ERC1 category for Rally2 cars. But it’s their new recruit, Pep Bassas, that really made a splash in Rome.
For Spaniards the name will be very familiar: Pep Bassas is the son of, er, Pep Bassas, who was Spanish champion in 1989. And it looks like the rally lineage is strong in this family.
Bassas finished second on his ERC3 debut in a brand-new Peugeot 208 Rally4. But it wasn’t so much the result as his raw pace that impressed, losing less than a minute to Torn on raw pace during the whole rally (he’d lost three minutes with a puncture on stage one).
A Spaniard being faster than an Estonian on asphalt probably isn’t the biggest of surprises, but Bassas has sampled plenty of the rough stuff during his stint in the Catalunya Gravel championship. If he can pick up a podium here, is it time to start talking about him as an ERC3 Junior title contender?