Azores: A forewarning
Paulo Soria's performance at the Azores Rallye was a preindication of how the rest of the season would unfold.
Co-driven by compatriot Marcelo Der Ohannesian, Soria was fastest in the entry-level, arrive-and-drive Renault Clio Rally5 category on all but three stages to head home Italian rookie Giorgio Cogni and Canary Islander Sergio Fuentes, who completed the podium in third position.
Soria, who finished runner-up in the 2021 championship, led from start to finish. Aside from a scare on Saturday afternoon when his car suffered a broken left-rear damper, little troubled the 27-year-old, who enjoyed a winning margin of more than three minutes after Cogni backed off during the closing stages to ensure a strong finish.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the field as Emre Hasbay, Andrea Mazzocchi, Ghjuvanni Rossi and Patrik Herczig all suffered crashes at the season opener.
Canarias: Soria doubles up
On Tarmac for the first time this year, Soria once again extended his championship lead with another victory at Rally Islas Canarias.
The Argentine battled hard with Fuentes and Mazzocchi throughout Friday and ended the first full leg with just 11.3sec in hand over the latter. However, Mazzocchi was dealt a devastating blow when a 50sec time penalty dropped him out of the lead scrap.
Soria proceeded to stretch his advantage on the final day by winning four of the six challenging asphalt speed tests and secured his second victory of the season by 45.1sec from Fuentes.
Cogni secured third overall ahead of a frustrated Mazzocchi, who settled for fourth.
Latvia: The hat-trick
Soria extended his points lead to 27 after making it three wins from three starts at Tet Rally Liepāja. And, once again, his victory margin was hefty.
Soria was on the pace from the get-go and snuck into an early lead on Saturday morning before relinquishing the top spot to Cogni when a damaged wheel resulted in a deflated tyre. Cogni later suffered a rear puncture, promoting Soria back in front.
Sunday’s finale was less dramatic for 27-year-old Soria, and he could afford to drive safely to the finish - especially when his main rival rolled out of contention on Vecpils 2.
Mazzocchi moved up the order to grab second overall, 3min 46sec behind Soria despite incurring 2min 20sec in time penalties for lateness on Saturday. He inherited the position from Hasbay - who retired in the Power Stage - and finished 55.9sec ahead of third-placed Fuentes.
Rome: One step closer
Like clockwork, Soria maintained his unbeaten run at Rally di Roma Capitale - clinching his fourth victory of the season.
The championship leader found himself scrapping with home hero Mazzocchi on Saturday’s opening leg and trailed the 27-year-old by 7.5sec overnight.
But Soria upped the tempo on Sunday morning, reducing that deficit to just five-tenths of a second after two stages. Mazzocchi then folded under the pressure and crashed out on the very next stage - leaving his rival clear at the top.
A clean run for Soria across the final loop saw him take the one-make series spoils by 38.0sec from Cogni with Fuentes filling the final podium spot.
Barum: Dramatic finale
With four wins already to his tally and double points on offer at the season-ending Barum Czech Rally Zlín, Soria simply needed to finish sixth overall or higher to guarantee himself and co-driver Der Ohanessian the honours.
The Argentine pairing grabbed the early lead but plummeted down the order on Saturday morning after stopping to change a front right wheel mid-stage.
Soria got to work immediately and gradually hauled himself back up the order from a lowly fifth to end the event third overall - securing the title and a three-round prize drive in the 2023 ERC with a Rally4 car.
Rossi was the rally winner and snatched the lead in the first stage on Sunday when overnight polesitter Cogni dropped over two minutes with an excursion.
He scrapped with Herczig, who missed out on victory by just 2.4sec but finished the year third in the championship.
Cogni recovered to take fourth overall as well as second in the championship, while Mazzocchi rounded out the leaderboard. Fuentes and Hasbay both crashed out.