*Lukyanuk holds European title initiative over Ingram and Habaj in second, Hirvonen sixth

*Local ace Panteli leads ERC2, Llarena first in ERC3 for Peugeot Rally Academy

Nasser Al-Attiyah has increased his chances of winning the Cyprus Rally for a record-extending sixth time by completing leg one out in front. But while the Qatari has been the man to beat on the tough gravel stages south of Nicosia, Alexey Lukyanuk has the upper hand over Chris Ingram in the FIA ERC title fight.

Starting the event one point behind the Briton, defending champion Lukyanuk is in second place and on course for six leg one bonus points, while Ingram completed the day-closing superspecial through the United Nations’ Buffer Zone in central Nicosia behind Cypriot Simos Galatariotis in fourth spot, which will earn him four bonus points.

Łukasz Habaj, who like Ingram is competing in Cyprus for the first time, is fifth but still firmly in the fight for the European championship crown. Mikko Hirvonen is sixth on a one-off, purely “for fun” return to Cyprus and the ERC. Albert von Thurn und Taxis proved he’s suffering no lasting affects following his roll in free practice by finishing leg one in seventh with Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari eighth, Norbert Herczig ninth and Emilio Fernández P10 on his ERC debut. Cypriot Petros Panteli leads ERC2 with championship pacesetter Juan Carlos Alonso in third, while Efrén Llarena heads Erik Cais in ERC3 for the Peugeot Rally Academy.

Leg one report: Lukyanuk keeps Al-Attiyah in reach on tough day in Cyprus

Alexey Lukyanuk remains within touching distance of Cyprus Rally leader Nasser Al-Attiyah after the first leg of FIA European Rally Championship action, the Russian gaining time back during the afternoon loop amid punishing ambient temperatures.

Al-Attiyah, from Qatar, had dominated the morning trio of stages to build a lead of nearly half a minute, a scare at the end of stage three before midday service when a gear linkage pin fell out, providing the only major cause for concern for the Autotek Motorsport-run Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 driver.

There was a firm response from Lukyanuk in the afternoon as the Saintéloc Junior Team leader limited his losses in his Citroën C3 R5 on the re-run of Politiko to 0.6s. He then gained 2.8s on Al-Attiyah on the 23.23-kilometre Lefkara test, the longest stage of the rally.

“It was a good day for us,” said Al-Attiyah, a five-time winner of the event. “Stage five was really hard, very tough, so we didn’t take any risk, and we managed it with a good speed. We lost only three seconds to Lukyanuk. I’m quite happy and we have a good lead but tomorrow is a long day.”

Lukyanuk’s deficit to the rally leader is down to 25.4s and has a comfortable gap to third-placed Cypriot Simos Galatariotis, last year’s winner. With his European championship defence firmly in mind, Lukyanuk has been loathed to engage in battle with Al-Attiyah, who is competing in the ERC on a one-off basis and is therefore not in the title battle. A risky strategy was deployed by Galatariotis, who took only one spare tyre to save weight despite the Cyprus Rally’s reputation for rough, rocky stages. It paid off though, as he doubled his advantage over the chasing pack behind him.

ERC championship leader Chris Ingram (Toksport WRT), who turned to crowdfunding to compete in Cyprus after missing out on the ERC1 Junior title and the 100,000 euros prize fund by just 0.3s, is in fourth, retaking the place on stage five after losing it on the previous run with an uncharacteristically slow time.

Third-fastest time on the re-run of Lefkara put him back ahead of fellow title contender Łukasz Habaj (Sports Racing Technologies), who finished the day 9.4s behind the Briton after leg one. Ingram, in particular, admitted his set-up choice was too conservative, and is planning to attack on leg two.

Sixth-placed Mikko Hirvonen’s first day of ERC action in 17 years was mostly trouble-free, his biggest concern being brake fade from overheating mid-way through the longer stages. While Hirvonen (MM-Motorsport) is a highly experienced driver with 15 wins at world championship level, his lack of recent stage rallying experience has made it harder for the Finn to commit fully to his pacenotes.

A much-needed boost is on the cards for Albert von Thurn und Taxis. The Baumschlager Rallye & Racing-run German has failed to finish the last three ERC rounds, but was already running in the top 10 before moving into seventh on the afternoon pass of Lefkara.

That gain came at the expense of Tibor Érdi Jr. (Érdi Team Kft.), who had to stop and change a front-right puncture and lost four minutes, falling out of the points places to P14. The double ERC2 champion, who moved up to the top class with a ŠKODA Fabia R5 late last year, was up to P13 by the end of the day.

Norbert Herczig (MOL Racing Team) rose from P33 to ninth by the end of the leg, scoring a string of top five stage times throughout the day. After starting the day with a two minute penalty, the Hungarian driver’s rapid pace has brought his gap to Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari in eighth down to just 6.5s.

ERC rookie Emilio Fernández (Toksport WRT) had a strong afternoon on his first visit to Cyprus, the Chilean picking up his pace on the second passes of Politiko and Lefkara. He moved from P11 to ninth on the latter, though was passed by Herczig on the day-ending Nicosia superspecial and dropped back to P10, 4.2s behind.

Both Herczig and Fernández benefitted from Niki Mayr-Melnhof’s troubles. The Austrian had already been delayed on the morning pass of Lefkara when his car’s dashboard lit up like “a Christmas tree” due to power issues, only for the same thing to happen on the afternoon pass. He remains in the battle for eighth, however, only 16.6s off Al-Kuwari and 6.1s behind Fernández having also lost time with an early puncture.

Petros Panteli (Q8 Oils Rally Team) leads ERC2 production category, while Efrén Llarena (Peugeot Rally Academy) continues to edge ahead of Erik Cais (ACCR Czech Rally Team) out front in ERC3.

Panteli holds strong as Alonso’s ERC2 title hopes almost drain away

Juan Carlos Alonso’s hopes of wrapping up a first ERC2 title with one round left almost drained away with a brake fluid leak, while local expert Petros Panteli is on course for a second class win in as many years.

Panteli (Q8 Oils Rally Team) was a dominant force in the showroom category, winning every stage of leg one to establish a very comfortable advantage out front. But behind Panteli, there was plenty of action in the battle for second place.

Antonis Chilimintris had fallen into the clutches of ERC2 championship leader Alonso on stage two in the morning, due in part to an intercom failure leaving him unable to hear his pacenotes. Alonso briefly took second, only for Chilimintris to take it right back on stage four. But then problems set in for Alonso – his Mitsubishi began leaking brake fluid on Lefkara, the longest stage of the rally at over 23 kilometres.

“We lost the brakes. We have a fluid leak. We’ve solved it but we don’t have enough brake fluid left, so we solved it with water. It works!” said a relieved Alonso. “We have a penalty as we’re almost three minutes late, but it’s good. We needed to take it easy on the last stage, but we’ve made it.”

That lateness added 30 seconds to his total time, pushing him back to 1m24.1s behind Chilimintris. A final score of 18 points across the Cyprus Rally weekend will be enough for Alonso to mathematically secure the ERC2 title, with 15 on offer for third place which he still occupies, and five bonus points already in the bank from his leg one finishing position of third, providing he goes the distance.

Despite his late dramas Alonso’s third place is still secure, as Dmitry Feofanov (Sporta Klubs Autostils Rally Team) is several minutes behind. Feofanov is competing in Cyprus for the first time and described the learning curve as “complicated,” although he is still on target for a top five finish in fourth place. The Russian was able to gradually edge ahead of Louis Papageorgiou (SLT Rally Team) throughout the day, with the Cypriot completing the top five in his older Evolution IX-spec Mitsubishi Lancer.

Llarena ahead in ERC3 as Cais rediscovers confidence

Efrén Llarena heads the FIA European Rally Championship’s ERC3 category over Erik Cais on the sun-baked Cyprus Rally. Making his first appearance with the factory-backed Peugeot Rally Academy team, Llarena took the opportunity with both hands, winning all three stages on the morning loop.

Czech federation-backed Cais (ACCR Czech Rally Team) bounced back after a “scary” spin in the morning that had dented his confidence with a stage win on the afternoon pass of Politiko, taking 12.3s out of Llarena. “We had a puncture on the first stage of the loop, a slow puncture on the rear, so we tried to manage the speed to try and not run the tyre flat,” Llarena said, explaining some of his time loss.

But on the next test, it was back to business as usual for Llarena. The recently crowned ERC3 Junior champion* took 16s out of Cais on stage five, the lead gap settling at 49.6s after the loop-ending Nicosia superspecial. Despite losing ground over the course of the afternoon loop, Cais was feeling much more positive at the end of the day. “It was good. I felt pretty low [before service]. It was better than the morning,” said Cais. “It was quite good, we changed the set-up with my engineer and now I feel much more confident with the steering and everything.”

Orhan Avcioğlu (Toksport WRT) was left frustrated from start to finish on the first leg, complaining his car was down on power. The root cause was believed to be a sensor issue, with new sensors fitted at midday service. But the swap made no difference, with Avcioğlu feeling “like I’m driving an R1 car,” referring to the class below the R2 and R3s used in ERC3. Despite being starved of power, Avcioğlu reaffirmed his reputation as a superspecial demon, winning the day’s final stage around the streets of host city Nicosia by 0.4s from Llarena.

Avcioğlu has already scored an outright stage win in ERC, going fastest around the streets of Las Palmas on last year’s Rally Islas Canarias, when he piloted a ŠKODA Fabia R5 for Toksport. Though the stage win made little difference to his overall position, he’s a comfortable third place in class, one minute ahead of Florian Bernardi in fourth.

Bernardi is more at home on asphalt but is taking on the rough and tumble of the Cyprus Rally as learning experience on gravel, with himself and the team working on the car “step by step” to find more pace in his Renault Clio R3T. Constantinos Televantos (Q8 Oils Rally Team) completes the top five in his Ford Fiesta R2, ahead of 2015 ERC Ladies’ Trophy winner Ekaterina Stratieva (Saintéloc Junior Team), who was happy to survive the “really crazy” stages. The Bulgarian is reacquainting herself to the championship in the boldest possible manner, as the notoriously rough and punishing Cyprus Rally is only her third event in the past two years.

Christos Mannouris has scored four class wins and two class podiums across various Cypriot rallies this season, but is unlikely to take home any silverware this weekend. He retired his Citroën DS3 R3T with a technical issue on the road section between stages one and two this morning, having already lost several minutes on the opening Politiko stage.

*Subject to confirmation of results by the FIA

PROVISIONAL TOP 10 POSITIONS (after six stages, 94.14 kilometres)

1 Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 1h16m29.5s

2 Alexey Lukyanuk (RUS)/Alexey Arnautov (RUS) Citroën C3 R5 25.4s

3 Simos Galatariotis (CYP)/Antonios Ioannou (CYP) ŠKODA Fabia R5 2m11.1s

4 Chris Ingram (GBR)/Ross Whittock (GBR) ŠKODA Fabia R5 2m35.3s

5 Łukasz Habaj (PLN)/Daniel Dymurski (PLN) ŠKODA Fabia R5 2m44.7s

6 Mikko Hirvonen (FIN)/Jarmo Ottman (FIN) Ford Fiesta R5 2m59.1s

7 Albert von Thurn und Taxis (DEU)/Bernhard Ettel (AUT) ŠKODA Fabia R5 3m57.5s

8 Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Marshall Clarke (GBR) ŠKODA Fabia R5 4m33.3s

9 Norbert Herczig (HUN)/Ramón Ferenc (HUN) Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 4m39.8s

10 Emilio Fernández (CHL)/Axel Coronado (ESP) ŠKODA Fabia R5 4m44.0s

FIA ERC2: Petros Panteli (CYP)/ Kyprianos Christodoulou (CYP) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X

FIA ERC3: Efrén Llarena (ESP)/Sara Fernández (ESP) Peugeot 208 R2

ERC Ladies’ Trophy: Ekaterina Stratieva (BGR) Peugeot 208 R2


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