Pressure on as Lukyanuk leads López by 3.8s in battle for Canarias ERC glory

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Alexey Lukyanuk has finished the opening leg of Rally Islas Canarias with a slim 3.8s advantage over Pepe López, with the pair trading stage wins in their battle for FIA European Rally Championship glory.

Both three-time event winner Lukyanuk and ERC1 Junior leader López topped four stages apiece, though the Saintéloc driver edged ahead thanks to two of those being on both passes of Tejeda, the longest stage of the rally.

Despite all of Lukyanuk’s marginal gains on the winding Gran Canaria countryside roads, López managed to strike back in Las Palmas, taking 2.5s out of the Russian in only 2.9km of superspecials to end the day. “It’s still pretty close with López, he’s doing a crazy job,” said Lukyanuk. “All others are far behind us but for us it’s okay now.

“After the first stage I said we should push. Last year it was calmer for me in terms of pressure, it was easier, the seconds were easier for me. I don’t know why, maybe some drivers are faster and we are still on the way to learning the car and the tyres.”

Like Lukyanuk, López drives a Citroën C3 R5 albeit for the factory-supported Citroën Rally Team. Facing a head-to-head battle for victory, the ERC1 Junior pacesetter was conscious of his rival’s wealth of knowledge. “For sure Lukyanuk has much more experience than me, so we have to keep focused in our target from Citroën España, so we will see. We will fight for the ERC also. I think Citroën has to be proud for this car because it's really competitive.”

ERC1 Junior championship leader Chris Ingram leads a tight battle for the final podium position in third, while also holding second in ERC1 Junior. He rapidly made up for a slow start, climbing from ninth after SS1 to take third on San Mateo from 2017 ERC1 Junior champion Marijan Griebel.

Baumschlager Rallye & Racing driver Griebel was another frontrunner somewhat slow off the mark but quickly made progress, finishing the day 3.7s behind Ingram. Some confusion at the start line of the Las Palmas superspecial cost him nearly five seconds, denting any hopes of retaking third from Ingram before the end of leg one.

Former Spanish champion Iván Ares had swung up and down the leaderboard dramatically throughout the day, at times running as high as third and as low as ninth. He spent most of the afternoon battling MOL Racing Team’s Norbert Herczig for fifth, taking the place back on the second pass of the day-ending Las Palmas superspecial. The pair are separated by only 0.7s heading into leg two.

European championship leader Łukasz Habaj turned in two fast times on the Las Palmas superspecial to reach within 0.9s of Herczig ahead of him, ending the day seventh in his Sports Racing Technologies-prepared ŠKODA Fabia R5.

Team OSCARO-backed Pierre-Louis Loubet had been an early contender for victory until being set back by a damaged tyre on SS3. A tied stage win with López on SS4 demonstrated his raw pace but his earlier time loss meant he finished the day eighth overall, nine seconds behind Habaj though still on course for a podium finish in ERC1 Junior.

Reigning Austrian champion Niki Mayr-Melnhof ended the day ninth overall, although ERC1 Junior graduate José Suárez is only 3.7s behind and on a comeback drive after tyre issues on SS3 had dropped him from fifth to P15.

Alberto Monarri leads the Abarth Rally Cup order and ERC2 production class aboard his Abarth Spain entry after a day-long battle with Overcame Competición’s Carlos David García. Renault driver Florian Bernardi heads Peugeot Rally Academy’s Yohan Rossel and Ford Fiesta R2T ace Jean-Baptiste Franceschi in an all-French ERC3 provisional podium. Baptiste is first in ERC3 followed by Sindre Furuseth and Rally Team Spain’s Efrén Llarena.

Leg one recap: ERC1 Junior López keeps Lukyanuk in check
ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk ended leg one of Rally Islas Canarias in the lead – but he was beaten more than once by a pair of ERC1 Junior stars in R5 cars that kept his advantage in check.

Pepe López had already won the Qualifying Stage and continued his strong form by winning Valsequillo, 2.2s faster than fellow ERC1 Junior competitor Pierre-Louis Loubet. In a field full of experienced Spanish drivers including third-placed Iván Ares, Rally Team Spain's José Suárez and local legend Luis Monzón, it was an impressive start by the pair.

Xevi Pons (ACSM Rallye Team) wasn’t so fortunate, however, his engine running down on power and leaving him outside the top 10 from the very beginning.

Lukyanuk scored his first stage win on San Mateo, taking second from Loubet and closing in on López. There was plenty of shuffling around; Ares would temporarily dip down to ninth place after SS2, only to regain his podium spot one stage later. MOL Racing Team’s Norbert Herczig meanwhile put himself into the thick of a massive podium position battle, moving up to fourth place aboard his Volkswagen Polo R5.

The biggest challenge was yet to come, with the third stage of the rally, Tejeda, the longest of the weekend at 24.1 kilometres. That meant plenty of shake-up in the order, as the long twisty roads of Gran Canaria took their toll on brakes and tyre life.

Lukyanuk swooped into the lead, taking 4.7s out of López. Team OSCARO driver Loubet had also been in the mix as a potential victory contender but his hopes ended on Tejeda, a front-right tyre failing under the intense pressure of the abrasive road surface. He lost 38.5s and fell to eighth overall, though he retained an all-important ERC1 Junior podium position.

Two ERC1 Junior graduates faced contrasting fortunes on Tejeda. The 2017 champion Marijan Griebel’s confidence was building, allowing him to shoot up from seventh to fourth place in one stage. It partially came at the expense of former Peugeot Rally Academy driver Suárez, who faced the same fate as Loubet and fell from fifth to P15.

There were two Ford Fiesta R5 drivers who also dropped time on SS3: Niki Mayr-Melnhof’s engine cut out briefly and lost him around half a minute, while Monzón’s brakes faded drastically as the stage went on.

After the crews regrouped at midday service, the ERC1 Juniors were once again fastest out of the blocks. López and Loubet tied for fastest time on the afternoon re-run of Valsequillo, cutting Lukyanuk’s lead down to only 1.7s. Griebel was also thriving after switching to a harder tyre compound, going third fastest to take third place away from Hyundai Motor España’s lead driver, Ares.

It was also a mixed bag for the Spanish drivers competing in ERC on SS4, as while Monzón drew level with Tibor Érdi Jr for ninth, Escudería Fuertwagen Motorsport’s Yeray Lemes picked up a front-right puncture. There was no Paulo Nobre in the afternoon, the Brazilian retiring his Palmeirinha Rally machine during midday service.

While Lukyanuk edged López by only 0.4s for the stage win on SS5, the real star of San Mateo’s afternoon pass was Chris Ingram. The ERC1 Junior points leader was only 1.3s off the pace, which catapulted him straight to the podium from fifth place, passing Griebel and Ares.

Lukyanuk pushed to increase his advantage on the re-run of Tejeda and gained 4.2s over López. Ares, meanwhile, was falling further backwards, as he lost fifth to Herczig with a time 18.8s off pacesetter Lukyanuk’s effort. Despite being one of the most experienced drivers on Gran Canaria, local expert Monzón struggled again on Tejeda and dropped to P12, allowing Niki Mayr-Melnhof to take ninth and allowing a recovering Suárez back into the points.

Both had also benefitted from cruel luck for reigning ERC2 champion Érdi, who had been forced to stop and change a puncture close to the finish of SS6. Losing over three and a half minutes, Érdi fell from P11 to P23.

There was a final riposte from López on the streets of Las Palmas. Across two passes of a 1.44-kilometre superspeical, the Citroën Rally Team pilot took 2.5s out of rally leader Lukyanuk, ending the day 3.8s behind. The lead battle is very much still on heading into leg two.

Herczig and Ares were back at it over fifth in Las Palmas too, with the Spaniard grabbing the place on the final stage of the day by taking 3.8s out of Herczig across the two superspecials. Plenty of tyres and rims were scuffed on kerbs as drivers chased tenths of a second, the most visually apparent of which was to Lars Stugemo’s Printsport-run Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.


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What’s next: The deciding leg of Rally Islas Canarias features eight stages over a distance of 103.96 kilometres. Up first is the Arucas – Disa stage from 09h40 local time.