The European Rally Championship has started in the Azores, and on Thursday Alexey Lukyanuk and Alexey Arnautov immediately demonstrated they are one of the Portuguese rally’s main favorites. The entire first racing day the St. Petersburg duo constantly fought with the Poles Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Jaroslav Baran (European Champions in 2015-2016) for leading positions, both at the morning qualification, and at the evening first section. And while no one has a clear advantage…
Almost all Thursday was most like a fencing tournament between Lukyanuk and Kajetanowicz – both duelists were constantly exchanging quick attacks and light shots, trying to get the opponent out of balance. And despite the considerable number of crews in the R5 cars (there were 27 of them at the race start), nobody managed to approach the last year champion and the vice-champion of Europe during the whole day.
The first “shootout” of both favorites took place in the morning, during free training and qualification at the short SS Remédios (length of 3.12 km). The training sessions ended in a draw, when Kajetanowicz and Lukyanuk won one pass each, both actively improving the time. In the qualification a slight advantage was on the Pole’s side (1.54,250), Lukyanuk only fell 0.107 s. The apparent speed superiority of Kajetan and Alexey is demonstrated by one simple fact – the third Portuguese Ricardo Bento Moura (last year race winner) lost to the leader 1.461 seconds.
The race itself started on Thursday evening (four special stages, including one city mini-SS and a paired race), with an intense but rather short section (only 26.64 km of competitive distance, half of which was provided by the Vila Franca – São Brás with length 13.47 km). In the end, everything went in a “broken” rhythm, when after each stage there was certainly a leader change… At some point there was an impression the first position would be fought at once by three – Kajetanowicz, Lukyanuk and Moura. But already at the third stage the Portuguese could not stand the Pole and the Russian’s pace and gradually went into the background – although Ricardo Moura was at the third place, he lagged behind for almost a minute quarter.
Thus, the whole Thursday evening was held under the sign of a tough fight between Lukyanuk and Kajetanowicz; it was difficult to predict until the day finish who would win. So far, all the first racing day events passed under the same scenario – all the time there was a tight struggle between Lucas and Kajto, but the Pole was a little faster at the very end… It was both at the qualification and at the race start – the last moment Kajetanowicz jumped to the leading position, but his superiority over Lukyanuk was only 1.1 seconds. On Friday there are six special stages with a total length of 80.2 km – and the main test should be the two passes of the longest and most beautiful race sections, Sete Cidades (25.62 km).
Alexey Lukyanuk, “The long day started with a qualification – a cool special stage to determine the starting position! Short, but quite saturated: fast, narrow, in places there were jumps to some tight gauges between the walls and the roadsides. I really liked it – we went well there. At the first training session [free practice] Kajetan beat us for one second, but we were able to take half a second out at the second pass. And at the third pass I drove very well, but in the last corner I decided to be quicker and did not guess, I had to put the car too much sideways, lost about a second and finally we gave way to Kajetan in the qualification. “Well, it’s okay,” I thought. Because sometimes choosing a starting position is even a bigger headache, than seeing what someone else is doing and then make your move. And then at last scoring special stages started.
The first couple of stages was not quite real. The first stage was laid in a parking lot with a gravel section. There we burned the tyres to the nines – I pushed too hard. We won that SS, but the tyres were “badly killed”. The second SS was fast and straight, with tarmac sections. There I decided to drop the pace slightly, to save the tyres for the third stage, which was the main one today, at least in the length terms. There we lost a second. We drove the third stage very cool, though only one-tenth faster than Kajto, and got out to the lead. There are still places where we could push, and I liked everything in general. And the fourth special stage was a paired race, where our tyres did not quite match the situation, and we drove very clean and well, but were two seconds slower than Kajto.
I think I could not go much faster, maybe half a second or a second maximum, if to make everything just perfect. It is likely the tyres “killed” at the first special stage played a role, but it’s not a serious problem. We are only a second behind for the whole day. Yes, there were not much racing kilometers, just over 20. The main race is on Friday and Saturday. And a nice bonus: on Friday we start from the tenth position, Kajetanowicz will be in front of us, because the starting order defined by the first three special stages, after which we were in the lead; the last SS was not taken into account during the calculation.
We’ve changed the car settings a bit at the evening service; the tyres are all right: we have 14 for four sections. That is, we can drive three sections using the new sets, and for one section we will have to put a couple of new and a couple of used tyres. Everything seems to be ok.
Pirelli cut the support from 18 to 4 tyres per round – sadly, but perhaps this is due to the fact Mishelin has left the European series, and it no longer makes sense for Pirelli to support someone. For us, of course, this is a minus – this is an additional cost. For two years we were fully supported by Pirelli. But nevertheless, we are very grateful to them for their time and joint work”.