Midfield ERC battles intensify in Cyprus as Al-Attiyah cements lead
Nasser Al-Attiyah remains on top of the FIA European Rally Championship classification on the Cyprus Rally, but behind him several battles kicked up a gear, including between two title contenders.
There was a near-miss for the Qatari driver on the final stage of the loop, going off-road to avoid a rock in the road. But that didn’t prevent him from taking a trio of stage wins on Sunday morning, and ensured the five-time Cyprus Rally winner doubled his advantage over reigning ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk (Saintéloc Junior Team) to 50.9s. It was a deliberate strategy to push in the morning by the Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 driver, who plans to be “careful” this afternoon.
Lukyanuk scored the second fastest time on all three stages this morning to further secure his position, with Simos Galatariotis (Petrolina Racing Team) also holding station in third place.
Behind those occupying the podium places it was all action. ERC points leader Chris Ingram (Toksport WRT) and Łukasz Habaj (Sports Racing Technologies), who had been leading the championship for the first half of the season, resumed their battle for fourth position, with Ingram initially pulling away by 6.4s on Kapouras.
Habaj struck back on Kourdali, wiping out his earlier losses by going 9.4s faster than this year’s ERC1 Junior runner-up*, which reduced the deficit to just 6.2s.
But Habaj’s hard work came undone on the loop-ending Asinou test, by far the shortest run of the day after a pair of stages over 20 kilometres in length. A spin left him stuck between a bank and a ditch, requiring some careful reversing to get going again and costing him half a minute.
The reigning Azores Rallye winner is now 36.1s off Ingram’s fourth place, though is still secure in fifth, thanks to his 38.7s advantage over Mikko Hirvonen (MM-Motorsport).
Though Hirvonen had previously driven many of the roads being used on Sunday’s itinerary during his spell in the World Rally Championship, it didn’t give the Finn much of an advantage. He picked up a pair of eighth-fastest stage times and a seventh-fastest time on the middle stage of the loop, Kourdali, with his progress was hindered by a broken roll bar.
Seventh place was a hotly contested five-way fight, as drivers making up for lost time on Saturday began to surge up the field.
Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari had started the day in eighth but his position as second car on the road was unhelpful. He was the first driver in the five-way battle to fall back, dropping straight to P11 after leg two’s opening test.
Norbert Herczig (MOL Racing Team) and Niki Mayr-Melnhof were the main beneficiaries, jumping up to eighth and ninth after starting the day ninth and P11 respectively. But from there, their fortunes diverged.
A broken front driveshaft from a hard landing left Herczig’s car with two-wheel drive, costing him nearly four minutes across the next two stages and pushing him down to P11, behind Al-Kuwari.
Mayr-Melnhof on the other hand was on a charge. He had been held back by a variety of technical issues on the first leg but with his car back to full strength, he set top six stage times on all three tests in the morning loop.
Eighth was his when Herczig’s driveshaft problems emerged on stage eight, which became seventh when Mayr-Melnhof eclipsed Albert von Thurn und Taxis (Baumschlager Rallye & Racing).
Emilio Fernàndez (Toksport WRT) had started the day P10 and gained one place amid the midfield shuffle but is now a minute behind von Thurn und Taxis, with Al-Kuwari 24.7s behind in P10.
There was plenty of action in the battle for P12 between ŠKODA Fabia R5 pair Paulo Nobre (Palmeirinha Rally) and Tibor Érdi Jr. (Érdi Team Kft.). A solid time from Érdi promoted him to P12 by just 0.1s after the first stage, but then water temperature issues set in, costing him over a minute and dropping him to P14.
More bad luck came Rakan Al-Rashed’s way: after retiring with a throttle issue early on the first leg, he retired on the first stage of leg two, bringing his rally to an end.
Petros Panteli (Q8 Oils Rally Team) is all set for a home victory in the ERC2 production category, while Efrén Llarena (Peugeot Rally Academy) further extended his lead in the ERC3 category.
*Subject to confirmation of results by the FIA