Subject to official confirmation, Alexey Lukyanuk is the winner of the 2018 FIA European Rally Championship. Born in Moscow but now living in St Petersburg, the 37-year-old has claimed three victories and one second place in the Pirelli-equipped Russian Performance Motorsport Ford Fiesta R5 he shares with co-driver and compatriot Alexey Arnautov.
The early days…
Do you remember your first rally in the FIA European Rally Championship?
“It was Rally Liepāja-Ventspils in Latvia, a winter event in 2013. We were driving an ASRT Rally Team Mitsubishi. We were doing well, running third overall, but unfortunately, we damaged the car. I touched a snow bank somewhere and destroyed the oil radiator so we lost oil and were forced to stop.”
What was it like competing against the likes of Craig Breen or François Delecour?
“Craig was a bit faster, especially on more twisty sections but with Delecour we were really close. It was really fun and exciting, to talk to him because I remember him from the WRC. At that moment it was a crazy experience for me. It was a great opportunity for us to be close and challenge them. We also won the Colin McRae ERC Flat Out Trophy.”
What did you make of people calling you a ‘Crazy Russian’?
“We really like pushing to the limit. Latvia and Estonia are places where you can go really flat out, with top speeds over 200kph in a Mitsubishi. Okay, with R5 cars top speeds are not that high but we still do our best. I’m happy to bring some joy to the people. It drives me and I try to push harder and harder. I just like driving and it makes me happy. Once I’m at a rally it’s like I’m on holiday in the best place in the world.”
Is it right you were in a rock band for three years?
“I was in a band 15 years ago, in Moscow. I still have a few guitars in my possession that I can practice on. I’m not playing anywhere anymore but only for myself and I have a lot of fun with these six strings. I’m an amateur, I’m not so good but I’m trying to improve. We played heavy metal and I never sang.”
But before playing guitar you’d practice writing pacenotes?
“We did it at home. We did pacenote practice with Alexey [Arnautov, co-driver] with on-boards and old pacenotes and after we took guitars and played. It was really fun.”
Who’s your favourite band?
“I have a lot. For example, Five Finger Death Punch, In Flames, Metallica and so on.”
The first ERC win…
What do you remember of your first win in the ERC?
“It was in Estonia in 2015 in a Mitsubishi, we were first overall going against R5 cars because we didn’t have the budget to drive the R5 car. It was a crazy way to that result, as we had finished third, second in this rally and finally we achieved the top position on the podium. It was exciting to be among the drivers who received this special helmet award. I was the 2014 champion of Estonia so it was important for me to win this event in style. Very good memories.”
The first ERC title…
You’ve challenged for the ERC title in the past but what has made the difference this year?
“It’s like a reward for many years of trying and pushing and finally it paid off that we changed our approach, we won three rallies this year, once finished second, we had some bad luck but we scored a lot of points and I’m happy because of that. Definitely, it wasn’t easy for us to change our passion and our driving style because normally I try to push as hard as I can. But in the end, we understood that it’s a necessary thing. Perhaps I don’t get so much joy from driving [like this] but I get a lot of joy from the results and from the points. I think we’ve made some good progress.”
Have you been satisfied with your performances?
“We had some strong performances and more elaborate drives, perhaps not on the limit but we tried to score points at every rally. Unfortunately, we still had some bad luck in Cyprus and in Greece. Both times it wasn’t me doing something stupid, just some bad luck with rocks. It all makes me think that we’re learning something and probably building our new style. Many things changed and it works.”
You have a new engineer at H-Racing this year, Lewis Allen, who used to work with Ott Tänak before in the world championship. Has he made the difference?
“I think you can’t point to only one thing. We did many different steps [forward]. This one was particularly a good one, I enjoy working with him, he’s a nice, friendly guy with a lot of experience with cars and with tactics and I enjoy working with him. He gives his bits of advice and we discuss many things. It’s good to have an experienced person like him in the team.”
Can you pinpoint any specific ‘steps ahead’?
“It’s all around preparation, physical, mental, technical, a lot of small details that work better now.”
What were your best and worst moments of 2018?
“The worst moment was Cyprus, we were really in a good mood, we had good speed, everything was good and we damaged the car with a stone. That was bad. Of course the victories were the good things. We had three this year. They were all very exciting but maybe the most exciting one was in the Azores. It’s a really nice event. The Canary Islands were great and Italy was also very, very nice. Perhaps Italy was the hardest one for me with this close fight [with Giandomenico Basso] until the end. We finished with only 7s between us. I have a lot of good memories.”
How important it is for you to win the title and how important it is for you to become the first European Rally Champion from Russia?
“Of course, it’s important because it will attract more attention to the sport from Russia and it will probably help us to get the attention of potential sponsors. It will be a good point in any discussions, that we have the title, we have the speed and the potential to go further so it’s a very positive thing. For myself, at this point, it’s not so emotional because would have clinched this title much earlier but we didn’t have the luck on our side. Now, we feel that the job is done properly and we should enjoy that.”
The tough times…
You had a horrific accident during a training session back in 2017, suffering serious injuries. Is it something that still plays on your mind?
“It was long ago, a year and a half ago. My main idea in the hospital was to come back to rallying as soon as I can. Mentally I was pushing myself hard to be prepared and ready to fight. We did a lot of preparation, exercise, and fitness. When we returned, straight away we showed very good pace in Rally Rzeszow in Poland. It was important to know that we didn’t lose our speed, that’s the main thing. It’s not a surprise that we’re here in this position but it was a long way.”
The good times…
How does it feel to be European champion?
“It feels a bit strange [to be champion after a crash] but I’m happy for the team and for the sponsors. It’s a really big step for us. We tried to be on the limit all the time but we don’t have enough practice, enough testing and sometimes we lose control. Still, we have good pace, good feeling, good mood and it’s a good end of the season. I’m sorry for Bruno [Magalhães] did not have the budget to be here but, anyway, the competition is very strong. It was a tough year for us but the party starts now.”
Looking ahead, what’s the next step for you?
“We have no plans yet. We’ll try to enjoy this event and after we’ll get together with sponsors, the team and discuss our opportunities, goals, ambitions, and objectives, and then we will see. I really enjoy the atmosphere here in the FIA ERC, it’s so calm, so friendly. In the world championship it’s different, it’s really tough and demanding but we need to move forward so I hope we’ll advance to the next stage. Yet, I still enjoy the ERC, the challenge and the drivers here are great.”
Would be your dream move after if your sponsors told you ‘okay, we have the budget’?
“I would be happy if they say that we have the budget, but a double one. Two times more than enough, so that we could do some development with the car, with my driving style. Normally, we don’t have any proper tests and we go from rally to rally. In WRC or WRC2 it’s not possible to compete with such a limited testing programme, so an extension of my testing programme would be my priority. If this happens, it will make me happy.”
Your former ERC title rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz is showing glimpses of good pace this season in WRC2. Do you think you’ll be able to perform on that level?
“It’s hard to say, sometimes he’s slow, and sometimes he’s really fast. It’s not easy to estimate. He’s a very experienced driver with a good team, good background. Of course, we look at the results and we estimate that we can perform at least at the same level.”
So what would be your goal in the WRC if you had a chance to do it?
“A goal… it’s a quote from [Sébastien] Loeb, he said: ‘I need to find someone who I can compete against and I have to be faster than him.’ It’s a very good thing in the end. You can set a goal to be on the podium or something like that but it’s far from realistic because you never know what challenges you will face. It’s an extremely long way to go and without experience in WRC events there’s so not much to talk about it. We need to learn a lot, build our speed and learn stages. It’s a long way, so we don’t plan anything.”
*Subject to confirmation of the results by the FIA.