Formula One racer Robert Kubica has completed a thrilling opening day of Rally Islas Canarias El Corte Inglés with a strong lead on his debut in the FIA European Rally Championship.
The Polish ace, who is making his first appearance on the demanding asphalt roads of Gran Canaria, set the pace aboard his Citroën DS3 RRC on all eight stages as unseasonal weather increased the challenge facing the 15 ERC regulars in action.
Jan Kopecký, chasing a hat-trick of wins on the island event for ŠKODA Motorsport, is second overnight, 1m06.7s behind Kubica, with Craig Breen a strong third for the Peugeot Rally Academy.
In the battle for ERC Production Car Cup honours, Subaru’s Andreas Aigner leads ahead of Renault driver Germain Bonnefis. Enrique García Ojeda tops the ERC 2WD Championship section for Citroën with Ekaterina Stratieva the leading ERC Ladies’ Trophy contender.
The bright sunshine and warm ambient temperatures experienced for much of the week had given way to rain and fog by the time the 13.57-kilometre Moya stage got underway just before 08:00hrs. While the bulk of his rivals opted for Michelin’s medium-compound tyres, Kubica opted to fit four soft-compound covers. The choice proved ideal for the damp tests located to the west of the event’s Las Palmas base as he moved into a lead he was able to extend throughout the day, despite his lack of experience in rallying. His only major cause for concern came on Friday’s final test, Ingenio, when he nudged a brick wall.
“It’s been a good day,” said the 28-year-old talent. “In the last stage there was a tight junction. I pulled the handbrake and touched with the rear a house. I had to reverse and lost 10 or 12 seconds. But it’s been a nice day, perfect testing in different weather conditions. Now we just need to continue running at our pace and keep calm.”
Kopecký, the winner of the ERC season-opener in Austria, also suffered a moment in the afternoon, sliding for 40 metres after he got out of shape on a fast corner on stage seven. “Robert is doing a great job and is very talented,” said the Czech. “I don’t think I can catch him now so I just need to drive fast to keep my concentration and try my best tomorrow to finish second.”
Irishman Breen, on a high after finishing in second place on the previous round in Latvia, was in touching distance of Kopecký as the sunshine returned in the afternoon. And he could have been closer had he not been saddled with a 10-second time penalty for leaving service in Las Palmas behind schedule this morning while he delayed his tyre choice until the last possible moment. However, a set-up change prior to stage seven had a detrimental affect on the handling of his 207 Super 2000 and he lost ground to Kopecký. “It was a mistake because the car was less precise with more understeer than before,” said Breen. “But I’m pleased with my performance and we were able to prove the 207 is still a competitive car.”
Like Breen, team-mate Jérémi Ancian has also impressed. The Frenchman hadn’t driven his 207 S2000 until a pre-event test on Monday and had no knowledge of the car in wet conditions. He snatched fourth place from Luis Monzón when the local hero’s MINI John Cooper Works RRC was slowed by a front-right puncture four kilometres from the finish of stage five.
Subaru’s Andreas Aigner tops the ERC Production Car Cup section in a strong sixth overall in his Yokohama-shod Impreza R4 STI with García Ojeda demoting long-term pacesetter Joan Vinyes for the lead of the ERC 2WD category on stage eight after the Suzuki pilot hit trouble with a reported broken alternator belt. Germain Bonnefis is the highest-placed Renault driver in ninth on his first run in the Mégane N4. He had trailed team-mate Robert Consani until Consani slipped back when his decision to run rain tyres for the afternoon’s mainly dry stages backfired.
Elsewhere, Jean-Mathieu Leandri is in touching distance of 10th for Saintéloc Racing, as a gearbox failure forced Daniel Oliveira to retire his Brazil World Rally Team Fiesta from the top 10 prior to stage seven. János Puskádi completed stage eight with a broken rear differential. Nevertheless the Hungarian is one place ahead of GPD Mit Metal Racing Team’s Antonín Tlusťák. Eurosol-Honda Civic Type R’s Zoltán Bessenyey hit back from an early spin, while Hermann Neubauer has battled the effects of possible food poisoning for much of the day. Emma Falcón crashed out on stage two but hopes to return to the action on Saturday.
Day two begins with the 13.28-kilometre Maspalomas stage at 10:28hrs local time. There are a total of six stages over a competitive distance of 101.52 kilometres. The finishing ceremony in Las Palmas is due to begin at 18:15hrs.