Sordo leads Azores Rallye, Team MRF take first leg win


The 55th Azores Rallye is set for a thrilling deciding day with 4.5s covering the top three drivers following six spectacular stages filled with high drama FIA European Rally Championship style.

Dani Sordo, driving for Team MRF Tyres in a Hyundai i20 R5 alongside co-driver Cándido Carrera, leads ERC points leader Andreas Mikkelsen (Toksport WRT Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo) by 4.0s with home hero Ricardo Moura 0.5s behind in third after a dramatic climax to Friday’s frenetic action.

Azores rookie Sordo started Tronqueira, the penultimate test of day one, 29.1s behind Moura, the 10-time local champion. But his stage-winning performance on SS5 cut Moura’s advantage to 6.4s heading to the day-closing Grupo Marques superspecial.

While Sordo made it through the two-by-two, 4.10-kilometre test trouble-free, Moura found his lane obscured by hanging dust. “We lost a lot,” said a frustrated Moura. “Because of the dust there were places we had to stop because we couldn’t see anything. It’s a shame.”

But there were no such problems for World Rally Championship ace Sordo, who starts Saturday’s six-stage route with a slender advantage.  “It was a good day and in the end we are in first position,” Sordo said. “Mikkelsen is quite close behind and Moura is fast but tomorrow will be a great fight. The conditions were very tricky and it was so difficult to drive with the fog and the rain but it was great to see the spectators. I am very happy with the team, with the MRF Tyres. We are working very well and we are getting a lot of information for the tyres. We are happy to finish the day in first position and to get a fastest stage time. Tomorrow will be a challenge to defend against Mikkelsen but we will try.”

How Moura charged to the top of the order in Azores
With António Costa co-driving, Moura made the most of his local knowledge on Friday morning’s loop of three stages battered by mud, wind and rain in complete contrast to the sunshine and high temperatures that formed a backdrop to the event’s build-up.

Armed with an all-new Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo, Moura was fastest on the first run through Graminhais and went quickest again on Lagoa de São Brás to reach midday service in Ponta Delgada leading by 27.8s. With São Miguel island’s ever-changing weather system offering more seasonal conditions in the afternoon, Moura was third fastest on the repeat of Graminhais but offered little resistance to Sordo’s advances on the repeat of Tronqueria as his recent lack of seat time began to tell.

“The conditions were difficult this morning but we have seen it much worse,” Moura said after three stages. “I would say it was mostly difficult for the people coming for the first time like Sordo or for a long time like Mikkelsen. I know they have a big margin to increase their speed on the second loop so I am not letting this pressure come to me. I did one rally two months ago and my last rally before that was two years and a half ago so it’s good to be on this rhythm and it’s amazing to be surrounded by the ERC drivers going at this speed. But I know the reality and things can change very easily and it will be difficult to maintain my rhythm with these guys. I know I can push more but I need to be sure I will be able to react.”

Sordo, the best-placed Azores newcomer, feared he’d lost time on SS5 but outpaced Mikkelsen by 4.3s to cut Moura’s overall lead to 6.4s with Grupo Marques 1 remaining. “It was very slippery and if it push more I go out,” Sordo said. “But I do all that I can, the tyres are working well but I don’t have a lot of experience with the tyres and we need to take more kilometres.”

Mikkelsen, who won on his last Azores appearance in 2012, is second overnight in his Toksport WRT Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo after going quickest on SS4 and SS6 alongside recently recruited British co-driver Elliott Edmondson.

“It was some incredible conditions,” Mikkelsen said of the Friday morning weather. “The first stage was quite foggy and raining a lot and the wipers were not fast enough to clear all the water so it was really difficult to see anything. Then in the second stage the wipers stopped working at one point in the middle of this really narrow section and I had to crawl at 5kph because I couldn’t see anything and we lost a lot of time. But we’re still in the game because other people had issues. It’s possible to push more but it’s so tricky and you are always afraid to catch some mud because there are so many things that can catch you out, it’s really difficult. It will be interesting tomorrow, we will definitely have a good fight.”

Efrén Llarena, who also reported losing time when his windscreen wipers faltered, is a strong fourth overall and the best of the ERC-MICHELIN Talent Factory contenders for Rallye Team Spain. Llarena won ERC3/ERC3 Junior on his last visit to Azores in 2019 and is 27.3s off the lead heading into Sunday’s six stages. “We tried our best, we know it’s difficult but we are here and tomorrow will be a long day,” he said.

Erik Cais, the hero of the previous ERC round, Barum Czech Rally Zlín, is fifth at the end of leg one in his Yacco ACCR Team Ford Fiesta Rally2. “The was something incredible, really, really hard and I was quite struggling with the grip,” Cais said of the tricky morning conditions. “I am happy about our pace but on the third stage we lost a few seconds when we had heavy fog and the grip was bad.”

ORLEN Team’s Miko Marczyk, who is sixth overall, described day one of his Azores Rallye debut as “one of the toughest days in my rally career”. It was also a tough day for ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk, as co-driver Alexey Arnautov explains below.

Behind Lukyanuk, who dropped time with a damaged tyre on SS1 and a spectacular near-miss on SS3 (click HERE to watch what happened), Umberto Scandola is eighth for Hyundai Rally Team Italia, with double Azorean champion Luís Rego and Mexican ERC rookie Benito Guerra rounding out the top 10.

Azores first-timer Scandola bemoaned his decision to run on hard-compound tyres during the rain-hit morning loop and also reported a rear handling imbalance during the afternoon. Guerra, meanwhile, hit a tree with the right-rear of his Škoda on SS3, Lagoa De São Brás, where the dramatic morning loop concluded with a crash for Yoann Bonato. The Frenchman was sixth after two stages but joined a list of retirements that included Pedro Antunes, Adrian Chwietczuk, Norbert Herczig, Nil Solans, Rachele Somaschini and Igor Widłak, who rolled his Ford Fiesta Rally3 200 metres from the start of SS2.

With Azorean championship points awarded on leg one only, double local champion Luís Rego made completing the opening six stages his priority after erstwhile leader Ruben Rodrigues retired on SS1 with a broken front-left driveshaft. Rego is ninth overall and four points behind new Azorean championship pacesetter Rafael Botelho, who is P11. ERC2 leader Javier Pardo is P12 followed by Aloísio Monteiro, Luis Viariño and Victor Cartier.

Spain’s Javier Pardo is more than three minutes in the clear in his bid for a third ERC2 triumph for Suzuki Motor Ibérica. He heads Frenchman Victor Cartier, who was able to take the start after he repaired his self-built Toyota Yaris Rally2 Kit following a crash in Thursday practice. Running first on the road, ERC2 championship leader Dmitry Feofanov is third, despite a fraught morning. After he narrowly avoided picking up a puncture on SS1, a spin on SS2 left the Latvia-based driver’s Suzuki Swift Rally2 Kit with a damaged exhaust and a dramatic drop-off in power. Joan Vinyes’ Suzuki Motor Ibérica entry was down on power during the morning loop but repairs in service allowed the Andorran to run at full speed in the afternoon. He’s fourth in class. Pardo said: “It was a fantastic day for us, only a little bit drama with Joan with the problems in the car but for the overall it’s a perfect day for us but not easy with the conditions.”

Rallye Team Spain’s Pep Bassas (Peugeot 208 Rally4) was almost one minute in front in ERC3 when he crashed out on SS5, handing the advantage to Jean-Baptiste Franceschi. The Frenchman lost time in the morning due to intercom and clutch issues but was left to pick up the pieces in his Renault Clio Rally4, despite completing Grupo Marques with brake issues. “It was a very difficult day with so many ups and downs,” said Franceschi. “Now we just have to stay focused and finish this rally after Bassas crashed.” Franceschi’s Toksport WRT team-mate Ola Jr Nore was a non-starter in his identical Clio Rally4.

Alexey Arnautov said he and co-driver Alexey Lukyanuk were “okay and ready to go again” following their dramatic near-miss on SS3. The ace Russians were fighting back from time lost to a damaged tyre on SS1 when they suffered a spectacular moment on Lagoa de São Brás aboard their Saintéloc Junior Team Citroën C3 Rally2. “It was at the beginning of the stage,” Arnautov said at midday service in Ponta Delgada. “There was a right corner and we were slightly faster than needed. The car did not roll but there were some spins, it tried to roll as well but thank God, there was no roll. We just hit a bank, we’re okay and ready to go again.” He continued: “It was maybe a slight mistake, was it my mistake or if Alexey just misheard it, I have no idea. There is some damage and hopefully it is not severe and the team will manage, but still we made a good time.”  Of the damaged tyre on SS1, Arnautov explained what happened. “There was a rock right in the trajectory and unfortunately it was not a slow puncture, [the air] was gone immediately and we had to stop and change it. Hopefully we lost not too much time. It was the front-left tyre and closer to the end of the stage. “We were happy with [our fastest time on] SS2, we don’t like the conditions at all as you can imagine, we were hoping for less fog and rain and the third [stage] was completely foggy.”

PROVISIONAL TOP 15 ERC POSITIONS (after six stages, 111.90 kilometres)
1 Dani Sordo (ESP)/Cándio Carrera (ESP) Hyundai i20 R5 +1hr27m06.0s
2 Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Elliott Edmondson (GBR) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +4.0s
3 Ricardo Moura (PRT)/António Costa (PRT) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +4.5s
4 Efrén Llarena (ESP)/Sara Fernándes (ESP) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +27.3s M
5 Erik Cais (CZE)/Jindřiška Žáková (CZE) Ford Fiesta Rally2 +1m06.0s M
6 Miko Marczyk (POL/Szymon Gospodarczyk (POL) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +1m06.9s M
7 Alexey Lukyanuk (RUS)/Alexey Arnautov (RUS) Citroën C3 Rally2 +1m37.9s
8 Umberto Scandola (ITA)/Danilo Fappani (ITA) Hyundai i20 R5 +2m35.4s
9 Luís Rego (PRT)/Jorge Henriques (PRT) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +2m39.8s
10 Benito Guerra (MEX)/Daniel Cué (ESP) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +3m14.3s
11 Rafael Botelho (PRT)/Rui Raimundo (PRT) Škoda Fabia R5 +4m31.0s
12 Javier Pardo (ESP)/Adrián Pérez (ESP) Suzuki Swift R4lly S +6m05.1s
13 Aloísio Monteiro (PRT)/Sancho Eiró (PRT) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +7m57.3s
14 Luis Vilariño (ESP)/José Murado (ESP) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +8m58.4s
15 Victor Cartier (FRA)/Fabien Craen (FRA) Toyota Yaris Rally2 Kit +9m42.2s