Back on gravel following the all-asphalt round in Gran Canaria last month, the ERC runners will face 19 stages through some truly spectacular scenery and lush countryside. Covering a competitive distance of 240.79 kilometres, the roads on the island of São Miguel are characterised by their sandy surface and narrow nature.
Undulating and with stone walls lining large sections, there is simply no margin for error, particularly on the Sete Cidades stage, which includes a charge along the rim of a volcanic crater lake. With a changeable climate, tyre choice and car set-up can play a key role as can road position, which will be determined by the outcome of the Qualifying Stage on Thursday morning.
Taking place on a 3.27-kilometre stage, the 11 FIA and ERC priority drivers will get two practice runs before their sole timed effort. The fastest driver will earn the right to choose their starting position first followed by the second quickest and so on until all drivers have selected their road order. The remaining 31 competitors will start the rally in number order.
Fans attending the event will get an early glimpse of their ERC heroes with the City Show, a noncompetitive run over a temporary course on the streets of host-town Ponta Delgada on Wednesday night. The event follows the popular ceremonial start from 20:30hrs local time.
Thursday’s route features four stages and concludes with the 2.20-kilometre Grupo Marques Super Special Stage constructed in a quarry where drivers compete against each other in pairs. On Friday, crews head to the west of São Miguel for eight stages with a further seven to the east on Saturday, the longest day of the rally at 111.15 kilometres.
…and there’s serious competition ahead
Thirteen Super 2000-category cars will do battle for ERC glory on SATA Rallye Açores. Czech Republic’s Jan Kopecký, who leads the standings on the back of wins in Austria and Spain is the top seed for ŠKODA Motorsport followed by Peugeot Rally Academy’s Irish talent Craig Breen and promising Czech privateer Jan Černý in a Fabia S2000.
Robert Kubica from Poland, who is making his first start in the ERC on gravel, is next up in his Citroën DS3 RRC with Frenchman Bryan Bouffier the fifth seed in a Peugeot 207 S2000. Ricardo Moura, the multiple Azorean champion, switches from his familiar Mitsubishi Lancer to a Fabia S2000. He’s the sixth seed ahead of German champion Mark Wallenwein and Portuguese Peugeot ace Bruno Mãgalhaes, a double Açores winner.
Seeded nine, Jérémi Ancian will be driving his 207 on gravel for the first time, while the highly capable Bernado Sousa has a Ford Fiesta RRC at his disposal. Jean-Michel Raoux makes his long-awaited ERC debut in a 207 and is seeded 11. Antonín Tlusťák heads the GPD Mit Metal Racing attack, one place behind 12th seed Janós Puskádi of Eurosol Racing Team Hungary.
In the ERC Production Car Cup, GPD Mit Metal’s Jaroslav Orsák has upgraded to an R4- specificaiton Mitsubishi for a rare start on gravel. Napoca Rally Academy’s Marco Tempestini (Subaru Impreza) and emerging Ukrainian talent Vitality Pushkar will both be out to impress as will top Portuguese Miguel Barbosa, Edwin Keleti of Romania, Russian driver Artem Nazarov and Marco Tempestini’s teenage son Simone.
Eurosol-Honda Civic Type R’s Zoltán Bessenyey will be bidding to preserve his lead of the ERC 2WD Championship but the Hungarian will face strong opposition from Austrian Renault Clio driver Hannes Danzinger, Suzuki pilot Hermann Neubauer and Frenchman Stéphane Lefebvre, who completes the Peugeot Rally Academy entry in a 208 R2. Henrique Moniz is the reigning Azorean two-wheel-drive champion, while Australian Molly Taylor will begin her bid for ERC Ladies’ Trophy silverware against Bulgaria’s Ekaterina Stratieva.
The Açores archipelago, which lies approximately equidistant between Lisbon and New York in the Atlantic Ocean, consists of nine islands formed from a series of volcanic eruptions. São Miguel to the southeast, where the rally is based, is the biggest at 747 km2, while Corvo, to the northwest is the smallest at 17km2.
Known as the Green Island due its lush and fertile landscape, São Miguel is famous for its changeable weather with sunshine one minute and rain the next.
Ricardo Moura might be a multiple Azorean champion but he’s never won his home event, which ran for the first time in 1965 and takes place for a 48th time this season.
Azorean menus are big on fish and seafood with barnacle a particular delicacy. It wouldn’t be unheard of to start a meal with a dish of local mashed red peppers and cheese.
While the event has never enjoyed full European Rally Championship billing before, it did achieve coefficient 2 status in 1992.