*Russian keeps championship hopes alive but Habaj is out of the running on season closer
*Delay and incident wreck the chances of several drivers, including Hungarian hope Herczig
*Cais leads ERC3 as Abarth Rally Cup is to set for final-day decider
Alexey Lukyanuk’s hopes of winning the FIA European Rally Championship for a second year running remain alive after he completed the opening leg of Rally Hungary at the front of the pack in his Saintéloc Junior Team Citroën C3 R5.
The Russian returned to the overnight halt in Nyíregyháza with a lead of 44.4s over title rival Chris Ingram following an action-packed day on the challenging asphalt stages in the north east of the country.
He set the pace on four of the six tests that made up Saturday’s 107.14-kilometre route and recovered from a left-rear puncture on SS5 to top the provisional rankings. As things stand, however, Ingram is on course to win the prestigious FIA ERC title for the first time.
“We don’t know if it’s been better to be in front or not, probably it’s not worse but it’s still big gambling about the grip and the conditions,” said Lukyanuk. “We sometimes discover the grip by chance and that’s extremely hard, it’s not really nice actually. Now we are starting to think about tomorrow when it will be raining because it was already slippery in the dry.”
The demanding stages caught out several drivers with deflations and off-road incidents providing the backdrop to the action in Hungary, which is hosting an ERC qualifier for the first time since 2003.
Toksport WRT-run Ingram, who started Rally Hungary with a 19-point advantage over Łukasz Habaj, adopted a cautious strategy in the morning and closed to within 21.3s of Lukyanuk when his rival punctured on SS5. But a right-rear puncture on SS7 resulted in Ingram dropping time to Lukyanuk and falling into the clutches of Frigyes Turán, the top Hungarian runner, who demoted Filip Mareš for third on SS7, when the ACCR Czech Rally Team driver was delayed by a deflated tyre.
“It’s always difficult in any rally but this one is more difficult than usual,” said Ingram, who opted for a combination of dry-weather front tyres and wet-weather rear tyres during the day. “It’s going well, going to plan and we need to avoid any more problems and be a bit cleaner.”
Mareš, competing on his first event since winning the ERC1 Junior title during the summer and taking up his first of two prize drives from ERC promoter Eurosport Events for that success, has impressed throughout the day in a ŠKODA Fabia R5 Evo. He starts Sunday’s leg 6.8s behind Turán with Motorsport Ireland-supported Callum Devine in fifth.
Devine joined the list of drivers to suffer tyre damage during the day, which also included four-time Hungarian national champion Norbert Herczig, who was delayed by three deflations on his MOL Racing Team Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
Despite his delays, Herczig is sixth overnight with Pál Lovász seventh, Albert von Thurn und Taxis eighth, Sean Johnston – on his first start in a top-level R5 car – ninth and Erik Cais leading ERC3 in an incredible P10 overall for the ACCR Czech Rally Team.
Habaj’s hopes of ERC title glory suffered a huge blow when he crashed in free practice on Friday morning, which prompted his Sports Racing Technologies team to complete a miraculous repair job to get his Fabia R5 to the start. He was in sixth overall starting SS6 when he was forced to stop with damaged suspension. Having begun 2019 with a breakthrough win on the Azores Rallye, Habaj became a firm title contender and his exit in Hungary is poor reward for a stellar campaign from the eSky-backed Pole, who is unlikely to restart on Sunday.
Hungarian champion Ferenc Vincze jointly led the rally after sharing the SS1 stage win with Lukyanuk. He then moved into the outright lead by winning SS2 only for a puncture on SS4 to strike. A further puncture on SS5 caused more delay before an overheating issue triggered his exit on SS6.
Double ERC2 champion Tibor Érdi Jr retired with suspension damage on SS4, Hungarian rallying legend Róbert Bútor stopped with a technical problem after four stages, while András Hadik, the winner in Nyíregyháza last season, crashed out on SS7. Austrian Niki Mayr-Melnhof, who turns 41 today, stopped with a broken gearbox on SS3 but will return to the action on Sunday. János Puskádi went off the road on SS2 but Paulo Nobre battled through the tough conditions to complete leg one in P11.
Penalty no problem for charging Cais in ERC3
Erik Cais leads the ERC3 category by a commanding margin over Marijan Griebel, despite a fraught start to Saturday’s action on Rally Hungary. The ex-downhill mountain bike champion reported a gearbox issue during Friday’s opening superspecial, which necessitated a replacement unit being fitted by his Orsák Rally Sport mechanics in service this morning. They completed the change in 17 minutes but Cais left service two minutes late to earn a 20-second time penalty. Undeterred, the Czech federation talent was a close second to Miklós Csomós when the Hungarian went off the road on SS4. That left Cais in a lead he’s held ever since as a puncture and gearbox issue slowed Griebel, who is second overnight. ERC Ladies’ Trophy title rivals Ekaterina Stratieva and Nabila Tejpar are third and fourth respectively and just 20.2s apart. Griebel’s Toksport WRT team-mate Orhan Avcioglu went off the road on SS4.
Abarth Rally Cup set for final-day decider
The first Abarth Rally Cup to take place within the FIA European Rally Championship will be decided on Sunday’s closing leg after rivals Andrea Nucita and Dariusz Poloński both retired. Nucita stopped with an electrical issue shortly after leaving morning service, while an oil pressure glitch forced Poloński to park his Abarth 124 rally during the afternoon loop. Local driver Mátyás Nagy, a rival to Nucita and Poloński in the ERC2 category, was delayed by an off and a puncture and failed to complete the day’s running.
PROVISIONAL TOP 10 POSITIONS (after seven stages, 107.14 kilometres)
1 Alexey Lukyanuk (RUS)/Alexey Arnautov (RUS) Citroën C3 R5 1h06m39.4s
2 Chris Ingram (GBR)/Ross Whittock (GBR) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +44.4s
3 Frigyes Turán (HUN)/László Bagaméri (HUN) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +1m05.6s
4 Filip Mareš (CZE)/Jan Hloušek (CZE) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +1m12.4s
5 Callum Devine (IRL)/Brian Hoy (IRL) Hyundai i20 R5 +3m39.5s
6 Norbert Herczig (HUN)/Ramón Ferencz (HUN) Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 +4m25.0s
7 Pál Lovász (HUN)/Tamás Kürti (HUN) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +5m03.1s
8 Albert von Thurn und Taxis (DEU)/Bernhard Ettel (AUT) ŠKODA Fabia R5 +5m39.0s
9 Sean Johnston (USA)/Alex Kihurani (USA) Citroën C3 R5 +6m04.4s
10 Erik Cais (CZE)/Jindřiška Žáková (CZE) Ford Fiesta R2T +8m14.4s
FIA ERC3: Erik Cais (CZE)/Jindřiška Žáková (CZE) Ford Fiesta R2T
ERC Ladies’ Trophy: Ekaterina Stratieva (BGR) Peugeot 208 R2
Day one newsfeed available here: https://youtu.be/ku9COFHZT2I
Live timing and results: https://www.fiaerc.com/live-timing/