This year’s European Rally Championship contest begins with the field in an unusual position.
In most seasons, there’s usually a couple of drivers who stand head and shoulders above the rest, battling for the title. Last year that was former factory World Rally Championship driver Andreas Mikkelsen, who won the title at a canter as the rest of the ERC field squabbled over second place.
In years where he’s been able to keep his car on the road on most events, Alexey Lukyanuk has also been the benchmark, winning two ERC titles in the past. But he’s not around either, taking a sabbatical from rallying as his country wages a war he doesn’t agree with.
That leaves the question: who can actually win the title this year?
“I have honestly no idea,” championship manager Iain Campbell tells DirtFish. “I’m not sitting on the fence to get splinters; I really don’t know!
“I saw the entry list and I was really impressed with it. It looks really competitive to me. There’s not anybody in there that’s standing out as going to be someone that would run away with all the points.”
And he’s right. There is no established winner in the field and no iron-clad pick for the title.
But does that mean there are no favorites? Not quite. DirtFish has picked out the drivers it thinks will be the title protagonists this year:
He has number one on his door for Rally Serras de Fafe. He finished second in the title race last year – albeit way adrift of Mikkelsen. And he’s back for a full season in 2022. It doesn’t take a genius to mark out Llarena as a title contender this year.
But it’s down to more than just his finishing position last time around. This is the final year of a pathway towards the European crown. And more so than any other driver in the field, he’s got all the pieces of the puzzle needed to put together a title run.
Llarena has joined the Team MRF army of drivers, effectively making him a ‘factory’ driver for the emerging tire brand. While its form on asphalt remains a question mark, MRF’s gravel tire is on a par with the Pirelli and Michelin offerings – according to Llarena himself, who’s driven on all three in the past three years, and also evidenced by Finnish and Italian Gravel titles won by Emil Lindholm and Paolo Andreucci last year.
That MRF deal has also bolstered his pockets, giving him the money to compete in both ERC and the Spanish Superchampionship – plus some testing in between.
Llarena’s season began last week, winning the S-CER season opener – albeit aided by the front-left wheel bolts shearing off José Antonio Suárez’s car and Pepe López also running into trouble. But up against a field of Spain’s best, in a series he hadn’t competed in regularly for quite a while now, he held his own.
While the tire is different in 2022, and Llarena has a new engineer in the Race Seven team that runs his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, everything else remains the same. Sara Fernández is alongside as his co-driver, the car is the same, the team is the same, the rallies are broadly the same. His learning curve is flattening out.
“For sure it’s a dream to be with number one [on the entry list],” Llarena tells DirtFish. “It’s really difficult to get it. It will be my first time in any rally with number one but we know it’s only a number and what’s most important is when you put on your helmet and go flat.
“So, OK, it’s just a number.”
It is just a number. But for now, it’s his number to defend, and he’s got all the tools to make that happen.
There’s another fast Spaniard in the field that’s at the opposite end of the resource scale to Llarena: Nil Solans.
Solans has been around at this level for a while now, graduating to Rally2s after winning the Junior WRC title in 2017. A difficult two seasons in WRC2 set him back a little but by winning the Spanish Gravel title in 2020, he reminded everyone of his potential – to the point it earned him a place in the same Rallye Team Spain program as Llarena.
There was even a brief dalliance with the WRC late last year, taking the opportunity to drive 2C Competition’s customer Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC after Pierre-Louis Loubet’s season was curtailed early by injury.
But that was then. Now the situation has changed. Solans will be there for round one – but the money will run dry after that, as it stands. Fafe is an all-or-nothing rally – win or bust.
He’ll likely do the rest of the championship if the money is found. But he needs a big performance on the season opener to make that happen.
A decade ago Campedelli was the latest bright hope in Italian rallying, winning the Italian Junior title in 2011 and the overall two-wheel-drive class a year later. But there has been no championship silverware since. Could 2022 be the year to change all that?
He’s got a bit of a task on his hands. On Rally di Roma he’s a force to be reckoned with; he got into the thick of the lead fight in 2019 when debuting the Ford Fiesta Rally2 and was the closest challenger to two-time European champion Giandomenico Basso for victory.
But it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped since then.
2021 was not a good year on the European front for Campedelli. Power steering failure beset his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 right out of the gate in Poland and led to a DNF; he had to stop and change a puncture on the very first stage of Rally di Roma and switching to a Fabia couldn’t cure his woes either, as it broke down on the first day of Rally Serras de Fafe. When he did get to the finish in one piece it was outside of the podium places.
Campedelli’s form book is not strong. But the ingredients are there: a full program in a car that, so long as it doesn’t randomly lose power again like in Portugal last season, is a good all-rounder for the ERC, and past experience of half the calendar.
Consider him a dark horse. If he can quietly go about racking up podium after podium, not getting distracted by the locals being faster than him on some events, he could be up there.
A warning, first of all. Creative license is being taken here. Magalhāes, as it stands, won’t be doing the full season. His main program with Hyundai Team Portugal is, unsurprisingly, the Portuguese championship. But the stars have aligned well for Magalhāes – the opening two rounds of his domestic season are also the opening two rounds of the ERC season.
Say his season starts well. Say he gets a win and/or podiums in the first two rounds of the year and leads the ERC standings after Rally Azores – an entirely realistic proposition, given his track record. What happens then?
“You never know!” Magalhāes tells DirtFish. “Because in 2007 it happened like that. I was able to make one event and in the end I was able to make all the events of IRC [Intercontinental Rally Challenge] because I won the first one. So we never know. But I think it’s very difficult.”
Very difficult, yes. Impossible, no.
There are three standout candidates for honors among the Portuguese locals – Magalhāes, reigning champion and his new team-mate for 2022 Ricardo Teodósio, and two-time PWRC title-winner Armindo Araújo.
But of those it’s Magalhāes that would likely be the strongest contender in a year-long ERC title fight. He contested the majority of ERC events in 2017 and ’18, racking up experience on rallies which still make up the bulk of the 2022 calendar. Each time he was the nearest challenger to the eventual champion; firstly to Kajetan Kajetanowicz and then Lukyanuk.
If he can kick off his Portuguese season on top form, there’s a chance for him to ride that wave all the way to the ERC title. And there’s no Kajetanowicz or Lukyanuk in the way this time either.
ERC drivers have a habit of deciding their schedules based on how their season is progressing.There are names on the entry list who, as far as DirtFish has been made aware, aren’t expected to be regulars in the ERC field this year. But, if Fafe goes well, and they show up again, and that goes well – who knows, perhaps they’ll be tempted to go all-in.
One driver whose program is a mystery at the time of writing is Ken Torn. He’s won everything in the ERC support categories up to now and he’ll be rocking up to Fafe in a Ford Fiesta Rally2. His seat time in Rally2 cars is limited to a handful of events back home in Estonia but he’s got years of experience of the rallies on the ERC calendar – plus a year under his belt with the four-wheel-drive Fiesta Rally3.
It remains to be seen how often he’ll show up, but in a field lacking an established star, he’s perfectly placed to make a huge impact as a Rally2 rookie in ERC.
Fellow Estonian Georg Linnamäe is another who could make a splash but without a full-season campaign locked and loaded.
“It’s a bit too early to make a complete 100% statement about this but I don’t think we’ll be doing a full season,” Linnamäe admits. “But definitely we’ll be doing more rallies: Poland, Liepāja, to name a few. Probably we’d love to do Rome as well if possible.”
His name has popped up on entry lists all over Europe over the past few seasons – including some ERC rallies, just without being registered for points.
But his priority this season is WRC2 – and it’s going well, as a WRC2 Junior class win on Rally Sweden has put him tied for the top spot with another ERC part-timer, Erik Cais.
More promisingly though was his pace in Sweden. While he couldn’t match Mikkelsen and Ole Christian Veiby, Linnamäe was battling Nikolay Gryazin and Egon Kaur – who’s currently in the thick of the Finnish national championship fight – for the final podium spot in WRC2 on merit.
He’s done his learning, so to speak. No more finishing the rally to get the kilometers under the belt and learn for the future. It’s results time now.
“Our goal overall this season is maybe to focus now on finding the speed and not worry so much about finishing every rally, which was more of the goal last year. This year we’re taking a bit more risk, pushing a bit more to find the limits and get comfortable at the limit as well.”