ERC event preview: Rally Liepāja
One of the fastest and most spectacular rallies on the schedule awaits the FIA European Rally Championship crews when Rally Liepāja hosts the third round of the all-action 2019 ERC season and the second event to count for the all-new Abarth Rally Cup.
What: FIA European Rally Championship round 3 of 8*
When: 24-26 May 2019
Where: Liepāja, Latvia
Distance: 207.98 kilometres
ERC appearances (since 2004 restructuring): 6 (2013-2018)
*Also counting for: FIA ERC1 Junior Championship, FIA ERC3 Junior Championship, ERC2, ERC3, FIA European Rally Championship for Teams, ERC Nations’ Cup, ERC Ladies’ Trophy, Abarth Rally Cup
2018: Nikolay Gryazin/Yaroslav Fedorov (ŠKODA Fabia R5)
2017: Nikolay Gryazin/Yaroslav Fedorov (ŠKODA Fabia R5)
2016: Ralfs Sirmacis/Arturs Šimins (ŠKODA Fabia R5)
2015: Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Peugeot 208 T16)
2014: Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (ŠKODA Fabia S2000)
One of the fastest and most spectacular rallies on the schedule awaits the FIA European Rally Championship crews when Rally Liepāja hosts the third round of the all-action 2019 ERC season and the second event to count for the all-new Abarth Rally Cup. Forty-five crews will chase ERC points on the high-speed Latvian event from 24-26 May, with a record 23 eligible for ERC Junior to underline the championship’s ongoing efforts to provide a platform of progression for young talents from national level aiming for the top of the sport. Early title pacesetter Łukasz Habaj heads the overall list for the Latvia-based Sports Racing Technologies operation, which expands to a two-car attack with the inclusion of teenage hope Oliver Solberg. Petter Solberg’s son is seeded number 10, one place ahead of hometown hero Mārtiņš Sesks, taking part in one of two prize drives as his reward for winning the ERC3 Junior title in 2018. Chris Ingram, the ERC1 Junior leader after two rounds, is the second seed followed by double ERC Junior title winner Marijan Griebel. Defending ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk is the fifth seed for what will be a wide-open battle for victory. ERC2 has a season-high eight entrants, including three drivers from the new-for-2019 Abarth Rally Cup, while Efrén Llarena, leader of the Pirelli-supported ERC3 Junior category, tops a 19-strong ERC3 line-up. Aside from the exciting entry, Rally Liepāja has undergone significant changes for its seventh consecutive ERC appearance. Moving from October to May, Rally Liepāja’s opening leg on Saturday 25 May is based around Talsi, which has allowed organisers to include what are described as Latvia’s ‘golden fund’ of stages, before reverting to more traditional territory for the closing leg on Sunday 26 May. This year’s Rally Liepāja coincides with the annual FIA Volunteers Weekend and ERC drivers will be celebrating those who give up their time for free to help make motorsport events happen.
Rally Liepāja in 100 words
The brainchild of driver turned promoter Raimonds Strokšs and first run to great acclaim in 2013, Rally Liepāja was originally a winter event but switched to autumn for 2016 to ensure more guaranteed weather. The new date effectively made for an all-new rally as crews adjusted to gravel stages free of snow and ice. Although the time of year had changed, the high-speed stages in western Latvia continued to thrill drivers and spectators alike. For autumn read late spring in 2019 as this forward-thinking event moves to late May and an expanded route with stages in the Talsi region too.
What’s new for 2019?
While Liepāja remains the event’s hub, the stages will cover a much wider area than ever before with roads around Talsi to the north included for the first time. A move forwards from October to May is the other big change for 2019.
Changes to the ERC 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. Meanwhile, 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.
*The top-three seeds – Łukasz Habaj, Chris Ingram and Marijan Griebel – all have Rally Liepāja podium pedigree to count, while Habaj’s team – Sports Racing Technologies – has won the last three editions.
*Alexey Lukyanuk signalled his arrival on the international stage with a giant-killing performance on the first Rally Liepāja in 2013. Now driving a Saintéloc Junior Team Citroën C3 R5, the Russian is desperately searching for points in order to get his faltering ERC title defence back on track.
*Eyvind Brynildsen’s most recent Rally Liepāja last October ended in spectacular fashion when he crashed out of the podium fight on the final day. He joins Chris Ingram and Cypriot Rally Liepāja rookie Alexandros Tsouloftas in driving a ŠKODA Fabia R5 for the expanded Toksport WRT squad.
*Unable to include Rally Liepāja on his 2018 ERC schedule, MOL Racing Team’s four-time Hungarian champion Norbert Herczig is a newcomer to the Latvian stages in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
*Japanese promise Hiroki Arai begins his ERC campaign with Manfred Stohl’s STARD operation. He will drive a Citroën C3 R5, also the car of choice for Sweden’s Mattias Adielsson.
*Czech federation-backed hope Filip Mareš begins his 2019 ERC1 Junior bid in Latvia and is set to impress following a learning campaign last season.
*Brazil’s Paulo Nobre returns to European action following a hectic three weeks, which has included contesting the two South American rounds of the world championship either side of Rally Islas Canarias.
*Lithuanian Vaidotas Žala is new to the ERC in Latvia, as is Saudi promise Rakan Al-Rashed. Both will drive ŠKODA Fabia R5s.
*ERC2 champion Tibor Érdi Jr (Hungarian) returns to the scene of his step up to R5 level, while Russian Artur Muradian makes his R5 debut having competed in ERC3 in the past. Albert von Thurn und Taxis will make his long-awaited debut in a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
*Former ERC Junior star and Rally Liepāja winner Ralfs Sirmacis is back on European duty in the ERC2 division where his opposition includes Zelindo Melegari, Sergey Remennik, Vytautas Švedas and Kuwaiti newcomer Mshari Althefiril.
*World Rallycross ace Reinis Nitišs (Latvia) joins the Abarth Rally Cup ranks, which include Dariusz Poloński (Poland) and Andrea Nucita (Italy). Abarth Rally Cup drivers are eligible for ERC2 points.
*The popularity of ERC3 is once again proven with 19 entrants including Peugeot Rally Academy duo Yohan Rossel and Catie Munnings, plus American ex-sportscar racer Sean Johnston.
*Of those 19, 16 are eligible for the Pirelli-supported ERC3 Junior category, which is led by Rally Team Spain’s Efrén Llarena and FPAK Portugal Team ERC’s Pedro Antunes, who joins Rally Islas Canarias class winner Jean-Baptiste Franceschi (France) in relying on Ford Fiesta R2T power. An ERC Junior preview will be issued separately.
Jean-Baptiste Franceschi (France) Ford Fiesta R2T: “It’s a very special event, especially for me because I’m really not used to the fast roads we will find. I know it won’t be easy to be in front of the other drivers but we will prepare as well as we can. Thanks to M-Sport I will do two days of testing, which will be perfect for me to help me learn. The objective is to be in the fight for the victory but let’s see.”
Marijan Griebel (Germany), Baumschlager Rallye & Racing ŠKODA Fabia R5: “I have vivid memories from Rally Liepāja, having competed there three times. Unfortunately, my first two attempts, when this was a winter rally, resulted in two of my largest crashes. That is all in the past, though, and I have warm memories of the last time I competed in Liepāja. In 2016, I was fighting for the ERC Junior title, and I needed to win in order to become champion. At the end, that is what I did, winning by a few seconds. It all could have ended differently, but I had become champion! That is still one of the best days in my career, something that I will always remember.”
Łukasz Habaj (Poland) Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5: “I’m very happy to be leading the championship, the car, the team, the tyres have been working well and we have been improving all the time. We’ve had the consistency and the pace but the pace is high and the competition is tight. Being on top of the leaderboard makes me really happy and, to be honest, my confidence is good. We know Rally Liepāja quite well, I have been there three times and my performance is usually quite good. It was one of my first rallies with the ŠKODA last year and we were fighting for the podium on the first day. Also the team’s knowledge of the stages will help.”
Reinis Nitišs (Latvia) Milano Racing Abarth 124 rally: “I am anxiously awaiting Rally Liepāja, which promises to be fast, technical and filled with intrigue. I am ready for a completely new and unexpected challenge in a car that is a bit unusual and rarely seen in Latvia – the rear-wheel-drive Abarth 124 rally. It’s an Italian car serviced by a French team, and we plan to have one test day before the rally. My only experience competing with rear-wheel drive comes from karting, buggy and races in the LADA Cup, so testing will be very important. It will also be a chance to get up to speed with my new co-driver, the experienced Māris Kulšs.”
Mārtiņš Sesks (Latvia) LMT Autosporta Akadēmija ŠKODA Fabia R5: “Our season has started not very good so it will be a big pleasure and very nice to do my home rally in a top-spec car. For sure it’s a different car, but it’s a good opportunity to show our speed again. I hope to have good feelings with the car and with my self-confidence following the tests. They are the main goals. The result is not main thing – we need to get our confidence to drive a top-spec car on these very fast roads.”
Head to head: Sesks v Solberg
Teenage talents Mārtiņš Sesks and Oliver Solberg start Rally Liepāja with a clear shared objective in mind: to build experience in R5 machinery. For 19-year-old Sesks, his home event marks his debut in a top-of-the range car, one of two prize drives from promoter Eurosport Events for winning the ERC3 Junior crown in 2018. Seventeen-year-old Solberg is tackling his first gravel event in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 having won the two snow rallies he’s tackled in the German machine. While both drivers insist results are secondary to gaining knowledge, Rally Liepāja nevertheless represents a gilt-edged opportunity for the exciting young pair to impress on an international stage.
Form guide: Efrén Llarena
The Rally Team Spain prospect is playing the title game. After winning ERC3 Junior in the Azores, Llarena settled for a podium on Rally Islas Canarias rather than risk all for a second win. And the approach is paying off as he prepares for his first Rally Liepāja, although he did complete the recce last October.
How to follow?
On TV and online: Live coverage of selected stages on Facebook. Daily highlights on Eurosport and YouTube. ERC All Access on Eurosport on 28 May. 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
Don’t miss! ERC Junior champion Sesks in home prize drive R5 debut
Mārtiņš Sesks will make his debut in an R5 car on his home round of the FIA European Rally Championship as the first of two prize drives for winning the ERC3 Junior crown in 2018. Teen talent Sesks, 19, had been due to take up his first prize drive on Rally Islas Canarias, but submitted a request to ERC promoter Eurosport Events to switch the Spanish asphalt event to his home rally. The request also required the approval of partner team Motorsport Italia but was swiftly approved. The second prize drive, planned for July’s Rally di Roma Capitale, is unaffected by the change of events. Sesks, who is from Liepāja and is the son of the city’s mayor Uldis Sesks, an ex-rally driver, will pilot a Pirelli-equipped ŠKODA Fabia R5.
Abarth Rally Cup continues on Rally Liepāja
The Abarth Rally Cup, which began on Rally Islas Canarias, runs in conjunction with the FIA European Rally Championship in 2019, bringing together the hugely exciting one-make series and the leading regional competition promoted by Eurosport Events under a long-term agreement with motorsport’s world governing body. Contested over six rounds of the eight-event ERC, the Abarth Rally Cup is open to competitors using the enhanced-for-2019 Abarth 124 rally, the lightweight, rear-wheel-drive Italian sportscar, which conforms to the FIA’s R-GT category technical regulations. And following the FIA World Motor Sport Council’s decision on 5 December to allow R-GT cars to take part in the revitalised ERC2 category, Abarth Rally Cup drivers are eligible for points in the popular showroom class, while also chasing an attractive round-by-round and end-of-season prize fund. On each round the following prize fund is offered: First position: €12,000; Second position: €10,000; Third position: €8,000; Fourth position: €4,000 plus four Pirelli tyres. At the end of the season the Abarth Rally Cup winner receives a final prize of €30,000. Reinis Nitišs, Dariusz Poloński and Andrea Nucita are in contention for Abarth Rally Cup honours on Rally Liepāja.
ERC drivers support FIA Volunteers Weekend
Drivers from the FIA European Rally Championship will support the 2019 FIA Volunteers Weekend on Rally Liepāja. Taking place from 24-26 May, the FIA Volunteers Weekend celebrates those who dedicate their time to make motorsport possible around the world. Capitalising on a busy weekend of FIA competition, 10 race events will raise awareness and give thanks to the volunteers who carry out the wide variety of essential roles without which motorsport would simply not happen. Throughout the weekend, the entire motorsport community – from volunteers and officials to fans, drivers and members of the media – are encouraged to join in and show their appreciation on social media. Using the hashtag #FIAVolunteersWeekend on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, people can share photos and stories of themselves in action over the two days, connecting motorsport volunteers at all levels from all around the world – from club events to world championships. FIA President, Jean Todt, said: “Volunteers are the unsung heroes of motorsport. Without them, quite simply, we would not be able to go racing. It is important for the FIA to recognise their vital contribution, and the occasion of the Volunteers Weekend shines the spotlight on their hard work and dedication to ensuring the safety and success of events the world over. This is also an opportunity to promote the positive benefits that volunteers gain from their involvement, and help attract new people to motorsport.”
1: Rally Liepāja ran for the first time in 2013 with Jari Ketomaa/Kaj Lindström taking victory in a Ford Fiesta RRC. It was the first and only year the really finished in Ventspils, up the Baltic coast.
2: In recent years, Rally Liepāja has formed part of the Festival of Speed Kurzeme, which brings speedboat racing to the city’s Tirdzniecības canal, plus other motorised attractions to the local area.
3: Two former Liepāja winners, Craig Breen and Esapekka Lappi, have both gone on to secure factory drives in the World Rally Championship.
4: Nikolay Gryazin is the event’s youngest winner, taking top spot in 2017 one day after turning 20.
5: Liepāja can claim to be the only Latvian city outside the capital Riga to offer air, land and sea transport options, while its city mayor, Uldis Sesks, is a former rally driver of note and father of Mārtiņš Sesks, the 2018 FIA ERC Junior U27 and ERC3 champion.