Alexey Lukyanuk will start the final day of the Azores Airlines Rallye leading the spectacular gravel event by 9.8s following a thrilling battle for victory with European champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz.
Overnight leader Kajetanowicz, from Poland, was still in front at midday service in Ponta Delgada but had no answer to chief rival Lukyanuk during the afternoon, with the Russian fastest on all three timed tests to demote the Pole into second place with six stages remaining on Saturday.
Kajetanowicz started the spectacular day-closing Sete Cidades stage leading by 6.7s. However, contact with an earth bank damaged the suspension geometry on his Ford Fiesta R5. He lost 16.5s and the rally lead to Lukyanuk, who has vowed to push flat out on leg two as he bids to cancel out his lack of stage knowledge.
“The stages are slippery like hell tomorrow and I’m not as confident in those stages because they are new stages for me and you need experience,” said Lukyanuk, who is competing in the Azores for the first time.
Despite his time loss on Friday’s final stage, Kajetanowicz was still upbeat having taken two fastest times this morning. “We hit a bank and the geometry was not correct but it’s been a good day getting experience in the fog,” he said.
Home hero Ricardo Moura is on course for achieving his target of a podium finish in his Fiesta by outpacing Latvian youngster Ralfs Sirmacis. Moura’s advantage is 24.3s over the Skoda Fabia driver ahead of the final day’s action. “I pushed a little bit and gained a margin to Ralfs but Alexey is going very fast and we can’t match that unless we take enormous risks,” said Moura. “Our aim is for the podium and now we are on the podium.”
Pedro Meireles is fifth overnight with Jose Pedro Fontes sixth and David Botka seventh. Jaroslav Orsak is eighth despite his all-new Fiesta R5 being troubled by a turbo fault. Raul Jeets is ninth, Antonin Tlustak 10th and Luis Rego P11.
Wojciech Chuchala was 44.7s in front in the ERC2 category heading to Sete Cidades only for a puncture to wreck his hopes of class victory. The Subaru driver’s misfortune has handed first place to Ruben Rodrigues by more than one minute.
Opel driver Chris Ingram was building his advantage in ERC Junior when a puncture on stage nine dropped him down to third and promoted Portuguese Peugeot driver Diogo Gago into top spot by 3.5s ahead of Marijan Griebel. But Griebel had the edge over Gago in Sete Cidades and now leads the division by 4.5s in his Opel. “I push hard but ERC Junior is always like this and sometimes it’s difficult to drive a lot of kilometres flat out,” Gago said afterwards. A dejected Ingram, who is 25.8s off the pace at the overnight halt, added: “I don’t know what happened but at least I showed my pace today.”
Saturday’s final leg consists of six special stages over a competitive distance of 102.76 kilometres. The 20.96-kilometre Graminhais is up first at 10h16 local time. The finish in Ponta Delgada is scheduled for 19h10.
Stage times and results:
SS1 Batalha (7.27km): Kajetanowicz/Baran (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS2 Solucoes M (7.08km): Moura/Costa (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS3 Vila Franca Sao Bras 1 (13.47km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS4 Grupo Marques SSS 1 (3.95km): Sirmacis/Simins (Skoda Fabia R5)
SS5 Pico da Pedra Golfe 1 (7.42km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS6 Feteiras Meo 1 (15.26km): Kajetanowicz/Baran (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS7 Sete Cidades 1 (25.62km): Kajetanowicz/Baran (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS8 Pico da Pedra Golfe 2 (7.42km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS9 Feteiras Meo 2 (15.26km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)
SS10 Sete Cidades 2 (25.62km): Lukyanuk/Arnautov (Ford Fiesta R5)