Habaj scores maiden ERC win on the Azores Rallye
Poland’s Łukasz Habaj has taken his first win on the international stage with FIA European Rally Championship victory on the Azores Rallye.
Climbing his way up to second place this morning by overhauling 10-time Azorean champion Ricardo Moura, 2015 Polish title winner Habaj then moved into first when reigning ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk picked up a puncture on the penultimate stage of the rally.
Habaj’s victory is also the third consecutive ERC win for his team Sports Racing Technologies, who ran Nikolay Gryazin to the ERC1 Junior title last season, and the first Polish winner of an ERC round since three-time champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz on the Acropolis Rally in 2017, 657 days ago.
“Thanks to all the team, Pirelli and SRT, they did an incredible job again. I don’t know what to say,” said an elated Habaj.
“We were working very hard, almost two years. This is our third time here, last year we had some pretty good pace but technical issues ruined the result and had massive bad luck. I think it’s just turned around.”
Moura secured second place, finishing 8.4s behind Habaj, the local hero admitting he’d lost too much time in the morning with an overly stiff set-up.
Lukyanuk, who initially fell to third, then retired on the final stage, rolling his Citroën C3 R5 on the very first corner of Tronqueira. The Russian reported flailing rubber from his puncture had damaged his car’s brakes, resulting in his sizeable accident.
His misfortune promoted ERC1 Junior winner Chris Ingram to the final podium position, finishing 42.2s adrift of rally winner Habaj, with Team Hyundai Portugal’s Bruno Magalhães fourth and Ricardo Teodósio completing the top five.
Teodósio scored three stage wins out of five on leg two but fell short of catching Magalhães, the pair separated by 17.1s by the finish.
Double ERC Junior champion Marijan Griebel completed the rally in sixth place in the all-new Volkswagen Polo R5, with Alexandros Tsouloftas capping his first Azores Rallye appearance with seventh overall and second place in ERC1 Junior.
An arduous rally for Bernardo Sousa included a roll on Sete Cidades on Friday and three punctures but he still scooped eighth place, over two minutes behind Tsouloftas.
Though Vojtěch Štajf was struggling through slow corners, overshooting several junctions, the ACCR Czech Rally Team driver still finished in one piece and picked up ninth place for his perseverance.
Brazil’s Paulo Nobre completed the top 10. “You cannot imagine how happy I am to have finished this rally!” he exclaimed at the finish, with P10 his second ever points finish in ERC.
Leg two recap: Habaj takes stellar first win as Lukyanuk rolls out
Unlike the bright sunshine of Thursday and Friday, leg two featured plenty of rain and wind, changing the complexion of the stages from dry, dusty affairs with road sweeping in effect to muddy lanes with standing water and slippery conditions to match.
Habaj made his first move on his way to victory straight out of the blocks, winning the Graminhais stage and passing Ricardo Moura for second place. Behind their second place battle trouble was brewing for fourth-placed ERC1 Junior leader Pierre-Louis Loubet, with a water pressure issue escalating as the stage went on.
Taking the front right corner of his car apart at stage end, Loubet discovered a broken water pump, a snapped belt unfixable at the roadside and forcing him to retire.
Marijan Griebel had a cloud hanging over him over a difficult Friday and was again off on the back foot, picking up a puncture but staying sixth. Alexandros Tsouloftas’s defence of ninth place did not go to plan, dropping behind Ricardo Teodósio with two spins. But both were in a better position than Luís Rego, who was unable to defend his seventh position and withdrew before the day started through illness.
Bernardo Sousa’s colourful weekend continued its chaotic theme, with his windscreen misting up and his intercom failing simultaneously. With no vision of the roads in front of him or pace-notes to listen to, co-driver Victor Calado resorted to hand gestures. “I laugh so that I don’t cry!” was his response after an exhausting opening stage.
It was only a taste of what was to come from a very wet and slippery Tronqueira. Teodósio stunned everyone by winning by 7.3s and, crucially, took a whopping 56.3s out of Baumschlager Rallye & Racing’s sole remaining driver Griebel in their newfound battle for sixth. There was even more misfortune for Griebel, as the windscreen wipers on his VW Polo had started to falter; terrible timing given the deluge of rainfall out on the stages.
ARC Sport’s Pedro Almeida had his hopes of ERC1 Junior points ended with broken suspension on his ŠKODA Fabia R5, having clipped something solid towards the end of Tronqueira.
Chris Ingram’s decision to take hard tyres, against the grain of soft sets picked by almost every other crew, was an especially unfortunate one for his run through Vila Franca Sao Bras, the wettest stage of the trio on Saturday morning.
“It’s savage in there. It was so slippery. There’s much standing water and we’re on the hard tyres,” he said, acknowledging the intense challenge of the Azores Rallye’s tricky roads.
It was tricky even for reigning champion Lukyanuk, who went straight on at a junction and stalled the engine on his Saintéloc-prepared Citroën. Teodósio meanwhile had passed Griebel by taking another stage win, all while reducing his gap to Team Hyundai Portugal’s Bruno Magalhães in fifth place from half a minute to only five seconds.
The afternoon rerun of Graminhais was expected to throw up drama and it delivered with the biggest shock of all; Lukyanuk had suffered a slow puncture early in the stage, only around five kilometres in, and dropped over a minute, demoting him from the lead to third place. Up stepped Habaj to the plate, with only one stage separating the 2015 Polish champion from his first ever ERC win.
Ingram could have capitalised and moved directly into third place at Lukyanuk’s expense, had he not spun and stalled, though gave his co-driver Ross Whittock credit for flicking the Fabia straight back into stage mode for him right after the stall and avoiding his time loss being even worse.
ACCR Czech Rally Team’s only R5 representative this weekend Vojtěch Štajf was another driver struggling to get pulled up in time for the tighter turns, overshooting several junctions and dropping time. It mattered little, though, as his Fabia was still in good nick and a top 10 finish was in sight.
There was one final dose of drama to come from the spectacular Azores Rallye, with unexpected consequences to Lukyanuk’s puncture. Setting off onto the rally-ending Tronqueira stage, Lukyanuk made it only as far as the first corner before flying off the road and rolling his C3 over. His puncture had damaged the brakes and contributed to a failure at the first left-hander. A win had turned into a podium, and that podium had turned into a non-finish.
Despite drama for Lukyanuk the rest of the field was mostly calm on Tronqueira’s afternoon rerun, everyone keen to finish in one piece. Paulo Nobre spun twice but secured only his second ever points finish regardless, such was the Palmeirinha Rally man’s advantage over Miguel Correia behind.
Lukyanuk’s puncture had helped Habaj reach the top step, but it was the only position he secured by luck. A stellar drive all weekend had put him in the box seat to pick up the pieces, rising to the runners up spot on merit and then snatching the win. He is also only the third Polish driver to lead an edition of the Azores Rallye, after three-time champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Formula 1 star Robert Kubica.