Fafe: Palomo’s dream debut
FIA European Rally Championship debuts don't get much better than Óscar Palomo's at Rally Serras de Fafe - Felgueiras - Cabreira e Boticas.
The Spanish teenager stepped up to the ERC having previously impressed in local rallies and was immediately on the pace - seizing the early lead in tricky conditions aboard a Peugeot 208 Rally4.
Palomo was briefly demoted by Paulo Soria in SS5 but jumped back ahead two tests later when Soria suffered a puncture and a broken brake pipe on the final stage of the day.
Starting the final leg with a comfortable lead in the category, Palomo could afford to give away a handful of seconds to a gearbox issue and he eventually wound up 48.1sec clear of Andrea Mabellini, who leapfrogged Soria in the Power Stage to grab second in class.
Anthony Fotia also found himself scrapping with the leading trio early in the rally but, having suffered a double puncture while carrying just one spare wheel, the Frenchman was disqualified when he attempted to nurse his Clio back to service on with a deflated tyre.
Azores: Fotia’s vengeance
Just a couple of weeks after the season opener and across the Atlantic at the Azores Rallye, Fotia was determined to get his title bid back on track.
Fafe winner Palomo opted to miss this second round and, as a result, Fotia was left scrapping with Mabellini’s similar Clio for category honours. For much of the event, it was Mabellini who held the upper hand - albeit by just 3.7sec after day one.
But Mabellini was once again forced to settle for the runner-up spot after dropping almost one-minute with a puncture in the final loop. Fotia, undeterred by some late gearbox niggles, headed the Italian by 56.9sec at close of play while Soria, now driving a lower powered Rally5 Clio, ended third.
Canarias: Enter Pellier
The first asphalt round of the season at Rally Islas Canarias welcomed a new entrant in the form of Laurent Pellier. Focusing primarily on the Junior ERC - which took place across only six of the ERC's eight rounds - the Frenchman was simply unstoppable on his first outing of the year.
It wasn't the best of starts for the Opel Corsa Rally4 hotshot, however, as he languished outside the top 20 after a mishap on Thursday evening’s super special stage. He produced a stunning comeback drive and, by the end of the first full day, had carved through the field and into the lead.
Fotia, Pellier's main victory threat, pushed hard on the final day but failed to make any major inroads on his fellow compatriot - eventually settling for second overall just 8.9sec behind.
Mabellini filled the final podium spot and stole the championship lead from Palomo, who placed fourth on his least favoured surface.
Poland: Double bubble
Pellier proved he was equally as comfortable on the high-speed gravel roads of ORLEN 78th Rally Poland as he added a second-consecutive victory to his mantle. But he didn’t have it easy.
Finnish sensation Toni Herranen made his ERC debut at the event with a Ford Fiesta Rally4 and pushed Pellier every step of the way. The 18-year-old moved into the lead early on the final morning and held the upper hand right up until the penultimate test, where Pellier retook the lead.
The pair were split by just four-tenths of a second going into the rally-ending Power Stage but Herranen's hopes quickly disintegrated when he ran wide on a corner and damaged the rear end of the car. The mishap cost only a handful of seconds but was enough to ensure Pellier emerged victorious by 10.1sec.
Palomo was never really a threat to the leading pair but netted third after enjoying a clean rally. It proved to be a pivotal event for the Spaniard and he moved back into the championship lead as mechanical failures forced both Mabellini and Fotia into retirement.
Latvia: The turning point
Tet Rally Liepāja marked the beginning of the season’s latter half - and the championship standings were extremely tight.
Palomo led by a single point from Mabellini with Pellier now just nine further back. Despite two retirements, Fotia also remained in contention only 16 points back from the lead. But at round five, the pendulum quickly started to swing in Palomo’s favour as his fellow title aspirants faltered.
Pellier picked up where he’d left off in Poland and immediately set the pace before rolling his Corsa in the fourth stage. He continued - minus the windscreen - but dropped so much time he was unable to climb back into a point-scoring position.
Mabellini finished a lowly ninth owing to yet another costly puncture, while Fotia could only muster fifth. Palomo picked up the pieces to clinch his second win of the season, stretching his championship advantage to a nifty 22 points over Mabellini with three rounds remaining.
Herranen scored another podium with second in class while third in the rally went to Finnish newcomer Benjamin Korhola.
Rome: Back on asphalt
The championship returned to Tarmac for Rally di Roma Capitale and Palomo was, by his own admission, less comfortable on sealed-surface rallies.
With one eye on the championship crown, he opted for a safe approach, ending the Fiuggi-based fixture down in fourth overall Pellier and Mabellini pulled away at the front.
Pellier, however, was dominant once again. After seizing the top spot from local ace Mabellini on Saturday afternoon the Frenchman was never headed and won the category by 42.1sec with Roberto Daprà third.
Palomo’s points advantage was whittled down to 17 over Mabellini although, with dropped scores yet to be accounted for, things were looking good for the youngster.
Barum: Closing in
Pellier was a man on a mission at Barum Czech Rally Zlín and headed to the event with his eyes firmly set on clinching the Junior ERC title - which he duly succeeded in doing.
At the same time, the Corsa man also brought home maximum points in ERC4 - winning the class by more than one-and-a-half minutes from Mabellini while Palomo bolstered his title hopes with another untroubled run to third.
With one round to go, Palomo topped the standings by 14 points from Mabellini with Pellier another six behind.
Arriving at RallyRACC Catalunya-Costa Daurada holding a 14-point advantage at the summit of the standings, Palomo knew that a solid finish would be sufficient to secure the ERC4 Drivers’ crown.
And, after safely navigating his way through 12 high-speed stages on home soil, the Spaniard was finally able to celebrate.
For a driver with two wins to his name this season, tackling the event in a cautious frame of mind marked a departure from the norm, but it was an approach that paid off richly.
Only twice appearing inside the top three on the class timesheets as he paced himself throughout, it was a measured performance that ultimately yielded fourth place - and with it, the coveted championship trophy.
Pellier clinched yet another dominant victory with a classy display on the Catalan stages. His performance elevated him to second in the standings – defeating Mabellini, who finished third, on countback – and deservedly earned Marine Pelamourgues the ERC4 Co-Drivers’ title.