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ERC event preview: Cyprus Rally

2019-09-20T10:03:36+02:00September 20th, 2019|2019, Cyprus Rally|

One of the toughest events on the international motorsport calendar takes place at one of the most exciting times in the recent history of the FIA European Rally Championship next week.

Essentials
What: FIA European Rally Championship round 7 of 8*
When: 27-29 September 2019
Where: Nicosia, Cyprus
Stages: 12
Distance: 199.76 kilometres
Surface: Gravel with some asphalt sections
ERC appearances (since 2004 restructuring): 5 (2014-2018)

*Also counting for: ERC2, ERC3, FIA European Rally Championship for Teams, ERC Nations’ Cup, ERC Ladies’ Trophy

Recent winners:
2018: Simos Galatariotis/Antonios Ioannou (ŠKODA Fabia R5)
2017: Nasser Al-Attiyah/Matthieu Baumel (Ford Fiesta R5)
2016: Alexey Lukyanuk/Alexey Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
2015: Nasser Al-Attiyah/Matthieu Baumel (Ford Fiesta R5)
2014: Yazeed Al-Rajhi/Michael Orr (Ford Fiesta RRC)

Overview
One of the toughest events on the international motorsport calendar takes place at one of the most exciting times in the recent history of the FIA European Rally Championship next week.

With two 2019 rounds remaining and three drivers locked in the fight for the coveted title, the Cyprus Rally in Nicosia from 27-29 September marks a potentially decisive point of the all-action ERC season.

Chris Ingram (Toksport WRT) heads defending champion Alexey Lukyanuk (Saintéloc Junior Team) by one point with Łukasz Habaj (Sports Racing Technologies) 10 points shy of Ingram, who is bidding to become the second ERC champion from Great Britain since Vic Elford triumphed in 1967.

While Habaj and Ingram will be Cyprus Rally rookies when they are flagged over the start ramp on Larnaca’s seafront next Friday evening (27 September), their lack of experience compared to rival Lukyanuk – who won the event in 2016 – is offset by a route revamp for this year.

By switching the event’s base from Larnaca in the south back to Nicosia towards the north, organisers have been able to include some of the semi-mountainous stages around the country’s capital with two stages not used since 2009 returning to the fold. But while some of the stages will be new to the bulk of the ERC crews, the intense heat, punishing, rock-strewn roads – some with asphalt sections – will continue to create a hugely tough test for car and crew.

Although the pulsating ERC title battle will grab the limelight in Cyprus, the entry list is full of intrigue, not least because of the inclusion of sporting all-rounder Nasser Al-Attiyah and former factory World Rally Championship driver Mikko Hirvonen. But while Al-Attiyah will be chasing a record-extending sixth Cyprus Rally win (he also won the country’s now-defunct Troodos Rally nine times), Hirvonen is competing with the sole intention of “having fun” in a Ford Fiesta R5 run by Markko Märtin’s MM-Motorsport team.

Simos Galatariotis became the first local driver since Nicos Thomas in 2008 to claim victory on the Cyprus Rally when he triumphed on last year’s event, albeit by a slender margin of 0.6s. His success put him on a list of winners that includes rallying heavyweights such as Stig Blomqvist, Marcus Grönholm, Sébastien Loeb, Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Petter Solberg, Ari Vatanen and Björn Waldegård. Several title-winning drivers will also be in action on the Cyprus Rally, while the ERC2 and ERC3 categories are well supported.

Twelve stages – including the mixed-surface Nicosia superspecial – over a competitive distance of 199.76 kilometres are in store as the start of the 48th Cyprus Rally – which counts for FIA ERC, FIA Middle East and Cypriot championship points – gets ever closer.

Cyprus Rally in 100 words
The Cyprus Rally has put car and crew to a significant test since 1970. And while the current format is a little less taxing than it once was, underestimating the challenging nature of this rallying heavyweight is a big mistake. Although fundamentally a gravel rally, some Tarmac sections feature, while punishing ambient and ground temperatures are a factor. Returning to Nicosia for 2019 has resulted in mountain stages around the capital being revived. The street stage through the United Nations-controlled Buffer Zone between Nicosia’s Greek Cypriot and Turkish inhabited areas continues remains on the combined ERC and Middle East rally.

What’s new for 2019?
Having run in June last season, this year’s Cyprus Rally takes place in September for the first time since 2015. Nicosia takes over from Larnaca as host of the service park, headquarters and media centre, which has resulted in semi-mountainous stages around the capital being included, some of which have been absent from the itinerary since 2009. However, Larnaca continues to host the start and finish ceremonies.

Changes to the ERC for 2019 include the renaming of the ERC Junior categories: ERC Junior Under 28 becomes ERC1 Junior, ERC Junior U27 becomes ERC3 Junior with continued support from Pirelli. R4-K and RGT cars are eligible for ERC2 points, the Abarth Rally Cup will be contested over six ERC rounds, while Rally Hungary joins the calendar for the first time as the deciding round in November.

Talking points
*Chris Ingram’s Cyprus Rally participation was made possible after his mother, Jo, launched a crowd-funding campaign. The Briton is one of four drivers representing the Toksport WRT outfit, which also features Rakan Al-Rashed from Saudi Arabia, Chilean Emilio Fernández and Turkey’s Orhan Avcioglu.
*Defending European champion Alexey Lukyanuk has experienced a love/hate relationship with the Cyprus Rally. After winning in 2016, the Russian crashed his Ford Fiesta R5 in 2018, on what was his 100thrally. He returns this year in a Citroën C3 R5.
*Although the Cyprus Rally is unchartered territory for ERC title contender Łukasz Habaj, the Pole has contested the Acropolis Rally in Greece in the past, which, like Cyprus is an event characterised by high ambient temperatures and rugged terrain.
*Nasser Al-Attiyah, a word title-winning rally driver, former Dakar victor and Olympic Games medallist, will be out for revenge in Cyprus: he was leading starting the final stage of last year’s event only for a puncture to drop him to fourth place. That left local hero Simos Galatariotis to take a maiden home win.
*Al-Attiyah’s fellow Qatari, Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, has claimed two podiums in the Middle East championship this season, his first rallying campaign since 2016.
*Ex-GT racer and 2018 Austrian rally champion Niki Mayr-Melnhof is using his Cyprus Rally debut as a prelude to a full ERC campaign in 2020. Meanwhile, Albert von Thurn und Taxis, another ex-GT driver, finished fifth on his first Cyprus Rally in 2017.
*Brazilian Paulo Nobre contested Turkey’s world championship counter earlier this month to warm up for the Cyprus Rally, which he’ll contest in his familiar Palmeirinha Rally-run Fabia.
*Tibor Érdi Jr, the double ERC2 champion from Hungary, made his only start in Cyprus back in 2015 but ended up at the bottom of a ravine after going off the road. He returns this year aiming for his first European championship points since switching to a top-of-the-range ŠKODA Fabia R5.
*Compatriot Norbert Herczig, a winner of his national title four times, finished third in Cyprus last season. The MOL Racing Team ace is back this year in a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
*Mikko Hirvonen, a factory driver for Citroën and Ford in the World Rally Championship, has two Cyprus Rally podiums to his name. The Finn is making a shock, but purely for fun, ERC appearance on an event he has likened to the Dakar Rally, which he’s tackled on three occasions.
*Czech Tomáš Kurka and Cypriots Andreas Psaltis and Panayiotis Yiangou, who competes in a Hyundai i20 R5, complete the ERC1 class contingent.
*Argentina’s Juan Carlos Alonso will continue his bid for ERC2 title glory in Cyprus where his opposition will include Kuwait driver Mshari Althefiri, Russian Dmitry Feofanov, plus Cypriot trio Antonis Chilimindris, Louis Papageorgiou and Petros Panteli, the ERC2 class winner in 2018.
*The Peugeot Rally Academy has recruited ERC3 Junior ace Efrén Llarena for what will be the Spaniard’s Cyprus Rally debut.
*Ex-downhill mountain bike champion Erik Cais is set to take the fight to Llarena in his ACCR Czech Rally Team-entered Ford Fiesta R2T for what will also be his first Cyprus start.
*Florian Bernardi, another ERC3 contender and Cyprus rookie, will be in action in his familiar Renault Clio R3T as he continues to build his limited loose-surface experience.
*Christos Mannouris and Konstantinos Televantos will fly the Cypriot flag in ERC3, while Orhan Avcioglu is making his third ERC3 start following his European championship comeback in the summer.

Head to head: Cais v Llarena
Erik Cais (Czech Republic) and Efrén Llarena (Spain) were among the frontrunners in this season’s Pirelli-supported FIA ERC3 Junior Championship with the support of their respective ASNs. After impressing in ERC3 Junior, both will continue their bids for ERC3 title glory on the Cyprus Rally, which they’ll both be contesting for the first time.

Form guide: Nasser Al-Attiyah
With a record five Cyprus Rally wins (plus nine on the now defunct Troodos Rally, previously a Middle East championship qualifier), Nasser Al-Attiyah is traditionally the driver to beat on the Cyprus Rally, which he’ll contest this year in a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.

How to follow?
On TV and online: Live coverage of selected stages on Facebook. Daily highlights on Eurosport, Eurosport Player. Videos on YouTube. ERC All Access on Eurosport on 1 October. Event highlights broadcast around the world.
Videos, news update and live timing: Available at FIAERC.com
ERC Radio: Live from the end of all stages and selected service park visits. Available at FIAERC.com or download the official ERC App
Social media: Follow the ERC on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter
Daily news feed: Available on request by emailing media@fiaerc.com

Five facts:
1: The Cyprus Rally’s origins date back to 1970 when Victor Zachariades won in a Fiat 125. Although he didn’t take part, 1967 ERC champion Vic Elford formed part of the route-planning team.
2: While Nasser Al-Attiyah is the rally’s most successful driver with five victories, other winners include Stig Blomqvist, Marcus Grönholm, Sébastien Loeb, Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Petter Solberg, Ari Vatanen, Björn Waldegård and current European championship leader Alexey Lukyanuk, who took top honours in 2016.
3: There have been 10 ‘home’ winners of the Cyprus Rally since the first edition in 1970. Prior to Simos Galatariotis and Antonios Ioannou winning in 2018 by 0.6s in a dramatic final-stage decider, Nicos Thomas and Spiros Georgiou were the last Cypriot pair to triumph back in 2008.
4: The Cyprus Rally has formed part of the ERC calendar in its various formats since 1978. From 2014 it’s been ever-present on the European roster when the event was based in Nicosia after a spell in Pafos.
5: Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean behind Sicily and Sardinia. There are 380 rural villages in the republic, while Mount Olympus in the Troodos Range peaks at 1951 metres.