Bryan Bouffier has picked up where he left off in the FIA European Rally Championship by chasing victory in the all-action contest.
After challenging for victory on the Sibiu Rally in July, Bouffier is now fighting at the front on LOTOS 70 Rally Poland in his Peugeot 207 Super 2000. With fastest times on three of Saturday’s seven stages, the three-time Polish champion leads at the overnight halt in Mikołajki by 16.8s.
“It has been really difficult today, very tricky with the weather conditions and I must say I am a bit fortunate to be here because for the final one and a half kilometres of the last stage I had a driveshaft broken I think,” said Frenchman Bouffier, whose Peugeot uses Michelin tyres. “For sure the grip has not been good but I am having to push because the gap is not so big.”
But there was real drama behind Bouffier when national hero Robert Kubica, who started the day-closing Mrągowo stage in second overall following an impressive display on his event debut, retired after tearing the front-right wheel from his Citroën DS3 RRC striking a rock hidden in a cut on a fifth-gear right-hander. The incident was captured on his onboard camera live on Eurosport.
Despite heroically battling to the finish of the stage, albeit with a significant time loss, the damage was too great for Kubica to attempt the road section back to final service. “I thought we had less damage than we have,” he said at the completion of the 25.16-kilometre run. “I tried to make it to the finish as I thought we had some spare parts but we don’t and it’s a shame. It was in a quick part and I hit a stone on the braking and all the effort went on the front right. I thought at the beginning it was a puncture but in the end it was the wheel. I was doing my rally to be honest, not risking anything but it’s kind of part of the rally. I am not sure if we come back tomorrow.”
Kubica, fastest on two stages, had been embroiled in a close battle with fellow LOTOS-backed driver Kajetan Kajetanowicz for much of the day and it’s Kajetanowicz who holds second place heading into day two on his first start in a Ford Fiesta R5. The Polish champion elect belied his lack of experience behind the wheel of the new-generation car to win the second Mrągowo test, one of two shown live on Eurosport and Eurosport Player. Subject to confirmation, Kajetanowicz’s performance today is enough to hand him his fourth national crown.
Jan Kopecký, the European championship leader, selected first position on the road in his ŠKODA Fabia Super 2000 and admitted it hadn’t been the best choice in the slippery conditions. He is fourth overnight after losing the final spot on the provisional podium to Michał Sołowow on the final stage when he went off the road on two occasions. “Under the mud there is sand, which has a lot more grip for the drivers behind,” said Kopecký. “But that last stage was a real nightmare. Twice I was out of the road. I was very lucky because once I thought we were hitting a tree.”
Polish legend and former European champion Krzysztof Hołowczyc is fifth overnight in his Fiesta RRC with M-Sport team-mates Michał Kościuszko and Zbigniew Staniszewski close behind in sixth and seventh places respectively.
Kościuszko, who is competing with a fractured vertebra, was second after the first stage only to drop time on the next test when his Fiesta R5’s powersteering momentarily faltered.
A suspected powersteering issue on the final stage also hit Martin Kangur’s hopes of a top result in his Fiesta, which is run by former WRC winner Markko Märtin’s eponymous team. “At one junction we lost the powersteering and went into a tree at 20 kilometres per hour,” said Kangur, who completed the day’s competitive action with damage to the front and rear of his car in 11th place due to the time loss. Earlier in the event, the 20-year-old Estonian became one of the youngest drivers to win a stage in the ERC with the fastest time on the second Baranowo run.
Peugeot Rally Academy’s Craig Breen is eighth overnight and one place out of the bonus point-scoring positions after a tough Rally Poland debut alongside new co-driver Lara Vanneste. The Irish promise, returning to the ERC for the first time since June’s Geko Ypres Rally, struggled to find a rhythm on the slippery stages this morning before losing time on the second Mrągowo test with a front-right puncture. Pole Maciek Oleksowicz and young Russian Vasily Gryazin complete the top 10 in their Fiesa S2000s.
The Bębenek brothers, Michał and Grzegorz, lead the ERC Production Car Cup standings after Wojciech Chuchała and Kamil Heller were hit by a time penalty when repairs to their Subaru Impreza’s suspension overran prior to the Mikołajki superspecial. Category regular Toshi Arai lost time when a power glitch hit his Yokohama-shod Impreza R4 STI. The Japanese ace is fourth in class behind top Lithuanian driver Dominykas Butvilas. Napoca Rally Academy’s Simone Tempestini is in eighth place.
In the ERC 2WD Championship Radosław Raczkowski, in an R3-specification Citroën DS3, heads Poland rookie Stéphane Lefebvre, who continues to impress in his less powerful Peugeot Rally Academy 208 R2. Molly Taylor tops the ERC Ladies’ Trophy in ninth place in the two-wheel-drive division.
Leg two features six stages over a competitive distance of 113.48 kilometres and begins with the 23.66-kilometre Maják stage at 08:53hrs local time on Sunday.