Mon 21 Nov 2022

My Top 5: Luke Barry

We asked Luke Barry - deputy editor at DirtFish - to pick out his top five moments from this year’s FIA European Rally Championship. Over to you, Luke!

There's always excitement when a new era dawns. For the FIA European Rally Championship, a new promoter gave the championship a new direction and lease of life but the same familiar spread of rallies and competition.

Efrén Llarena and Sara Fernández announced themselves as king and queen of European rallying with a superb display of consistency all year, although from the neutral's perspective it's a touch disappointing that they weren't pushed all the way by Nil Solans and Marc Martí, who clearly had the pace to challenge their fellow Spaniards but not the bank balance to sustain it.

No season of rallying is purely about the success though, so there's been plenty of spills as well as thrills - remember Ken Torn's two crashes in quick succession in Zlin, or Giandomenico Basso’s bizarre crash over the finish-line in Rome? - but I've been told I'm only allowed to pick five moments. So Ken, Giandomenico, I've spared your blushes.

Instead, my top five moments include far more smiles than frowns, although not for all concerned...

The second place tie
As neutrals, we can't have favourites. But that doesn't mean we can't feel empathy for competitors when things don't go their way. On the face of it, a third place podium for Yoann Bonato on round three, Rally Islas Canarias, was nothing to be frustrated about. But context is key.

From the off, Bonato was muscling his Citroën into the fight with the Spanish locals. Solans, Llarena and local ace Luis Monzón all took turns in the lead before Solans ultimately stretched clear to an 11.1sec win in his Volkswagen when Monzón retired with a puncture. But second spot behind him was far from settled, as heading into the Power Stage just six-tenths of a second were all that split Bonato's C3 and Llarena's Fabia.

Stopping the clocks, you guessed it, six-tenths faster, Llarena drew level with his rival but jumped ahead of him a spot on the podium by virtue of the fact he hadn't won any stages throughout the weekend, and Llarena had topped three. Anguish doesn't cover it, but at least it wasn't for a win!

Kristensson's comeback
Tom Kristensson's troubled and trying 2021 season in WRC2 really wasn't a reflection of the driver he truly is. 

Making the leap from the Rally4 class after winning the previous year's Junior WRC, Kristensson found the step up - both financially and in terms of performance - a challenge and looked lost at times in a Ford Fiesta Rally2. Cue a change of scenery, and wheels, with a small ERC programme to complement national events in a Kowax 2B Hyundai.

The difference was profound. Kristensson, a former ERC Junior frontrunner with Opel Motorsport, was back to his old self by the time his ERC schedule began in Poland. Second overall, just 10sec behind winner Miko Marczyk, was a stunning effort in the older i20 R5 model and showed the value in taking one step back to jump two further forwards.

Barum Czech Rally Zlín was less successful as Kristensson unfortunately crashed on the third stage, but it was a joy to see the Swede back performing at a high level once again.

Armstrong's Rally3 heroics
We've seen glimpses of it in the WRC this season, that the Rally3 Fiesta can seriously punch above its weight against the Rally2 cars when the right conditions present themselves. 

The tight, wet and gnarly stages of the Azores were the perfect arena for the Rally3 to strut its stuff - particularly with a driver like Jon Armstrong behind the wheel.

Norbert Herczig, Simone Tempestini, Alberto Battistolli - these are all fast rally drivers in pukka Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evos, but they were all shown the way by Armstrong's less powerful Fiesta on the first stage that ran, Graminhais. Stunning doesn't come close. Armstrong was just 22.9s off the pace in 24km, posting the ninth-fastest time.

The end result went begging after Armstrong carried too much speed through a water splash, but this was a fabulous display of giant killing with five more top 10 stage times on day two. And who can forget that comedic "oh yes" call from co-driver Brian Hoy as they took flight on the Grupo Marques super special. Tremendous stuff.

Kopecky's 10th
I'm a numbers man, so moments of great statistical relevance interest me. That's why Jan Kopecky's dominant decade of Barum Czech Rally Zlín wins had to make its way onto this list.

Since his first win in 2009, Kopecky's been beaten in Zlin just thrice (fair play to you Freddy Loix, Juho Hanninen and Vaclav Pech) - and one of those years he wasn't even officially competing in the rally. That was in 2014 when he drove a course car, and that remains the last year anybody other than Kopecky lifted the winners' trophy.

Local knowledge or not, it's a simply remarkable run that never seriously looked under threat this year. Adam Brezik surprised us all to lead after SS2 but a simply awesome time from Kopecky on the very next stage allowed him to break over 20sec clear and from there it was all about managing the lead. He wouldn't fail to convert.

Llarena's Azores heroics
It takes a lot to get me genuinely excited, but I was up on my feet when Efrén Llarena put it all on the line and snatched the Azores Rallye win.

It was utterly heartbreaking for Ricardo Moura who must surely have felt a 6.1sec advantage was enough to see him through, but Llarena had other ideas. It was a single-stage performance perhaps rivalled only by what we saw from Kalle Rovanperä on the WRC Croatia and Estonia Power Stages.

Llarena had remained a constant factor in the Azores, but never managed to make his way to the head of the pack. But with three stages to go and 14.7sec to make up, he listened to the devil on his shoulder who told him to push for the win. The angel would thank him later.

Go and re-watch the onboard of Llarena on the Power Stage. It's a pure demonstration of what car and crew look like when in perfect harmony. The drive was sensational and the celebrations more than matched it. This list isn't ranked, but if it were this moment would have to be number one for me.

Ironically in a championship year, this was the only time Llarena graced the top step of the podium, but what a way to do it!

Starts: Thursday, July 18, 2024 at 4:31:00 AM
Starts: Friday, July 26, 2024 at 7:00:00 AM
Starts: Saturday, July 27, 2024 at 6:00:00 AM