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ERC - Joy for Jan Kopecký but despair for Erik Cais in Zlín

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Jan Kopecký heads a thrilling battle for victory on his home round of the FIA European Rally Championship after a day of multiple lead changes and epic action on the demanding sealed-surface stages of Barum Czech Rally Zlín.

The 2013 ERC champion and 10-time Zlín winner moved in front after a brief rain shower prior to SS5 proved costly for Erik Cais, who had been leading his more experienced countryman up to that point.

But with Kopecký – competing in an identical Michelin-equipped Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 – enjoying a mainly dry 12.73km Slušovice stage, the Škoda stalwart was able to turn a 1.8sec deficit into a lead of 4.3sec.

“If there was a disadvantage to start first [on the road] it was now,” home hero Cais said after SS5. “Half of the first [lap] was completely wet and when we took the second [lap] it was half dry. It’s 35 degrees outside and it’s drying a lot, a lot, a lot so for the crews behind it will be much better and there will probably be no water on the road.”

Kopecký said: “Two or three places were a little bit damp and muddy so I think the cars in front had it more damp. But I was pushing now, the car was working well, not quite what I would like to have but the rest is perfect.”

It would get worse for Cais on the very next stage, the repeat of the Kateřinice test. Having slid wide into a bank on a right-hander on the first pass this morning, Cais ran wide on a patch of gravel on a high-speed left-hander 1.5km into on the second pass, damaging his front-left tyre in the process.

“My fault,” admitted Cais. “I was too fast in a corner where there was a lot of gravel but that’s racing and I wanted to race today. I now have to apologise to my team.”

Kopecký reported that he was “out completely with the rear end in the ditch” on the same right-hand corner three kilometres from the stage start where Cais hit trouble on the first pass, describing the stage, which hadn’t been used since 1994, as “very tricky”.

While Cais dropped out of contention for a first Barum Czech Rally Zlín victory, Kopecký’s moment went unpunished as he clocked the fastest time on SS6 to extend his advantage to 12.1sec over new second-placed driver Miklós Csomós, who reported a brief spin near the stage finish.

Hungarian Csomós briefly led the rally by 0.2sec after winning SS3, one of five different drivers to lead during the opening five stages, such has been the intensity of the competition on the penultimate round of the ERC season. Csomós is 14.9sec behind Kopecký after leg one and on course for a maiden ERC podium.

After winning Zlín’s super special stage on Friday night, Wagner completed the sun-baked leg one in third overall with local driver Adam Březík fourth.

European champion elect Hayden Paddon has been driving his Pirelli-equipped Hyundai i20 N Rally2 without risk on his first Zlín start as he looks to secure the coveted FIA title. The New Zealander is fifth overnight and one place ahead of Filip Mareš, who has struggled to replicate the form he produced to win the Qualifying Stage on Friday.

Hankook-equipped Dominik Stříteský is seventh and, like Mareš, is not entirely satisfied with his driving. Outgoing ERC champion Efrén Llarena heads to the overnight halt in Zlín in eighth position for ERC Teams’ champion Team MRF Tyres, with Mathieu Franceschi ninth on his event debut.

Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy’s Josh McErlean is 10th after seven stages with the delayed Cais in 11th followed by Simone Tempestini and Mārtiṇš Sesks. Albert von Thurn und Taxis looked set to complete the top 15 overnight only for a mechanical issue to strike on SS6.

Double European champion Alexey Lukyanuk won Saturday’s opening test to take the lead from Wagner by 0.7sec but slipped back thereafter. He was fourth overall until he was slowed through SS7 by an electrical fault, eventually completing the test 2min 31.3sec behind pacesetter Cais.

Mads Østberg was a fine fourth on his Zlín debut aboard his Citroën C3 Rally2 only for a broken driveshaft to force his exit after SS5. “Unfortunately, it’s not the first time this year and it’s a bit disappointing because we were having a good weekend so far and enjoying it so that’s a big shame,” said the Norwegian, who plans to restart on leg two.

An enforced gearbox change at first service in Otrokovice this morning after first broke in the original unit on SSS1 earned 2019 ERC champion Chris Ingram 20sec of time penalties. And there was more woe for the Briton a powersteering issue struck SS3. Having dropped out of the lead fight, Ingram elected to withdraw at midday service with his focus now on securing the funds to contest the Rally Hungary championship finale in October.

Igor Widłak, on his first European championship start since he won the ERC3 title in Czech Republic 12 months ago, heads the category after runaway leader and 2023 champion Jon Armstrong crashed his identical Ford Fiesta Rally3 on SS6. Armstrong and co-driver Cameron Fair were taken to hospital for precautionary checks.

Timo Schulz leads FIA ERC4 in an Opel Corsa Rally4 ahead of Peugeot 208 Rally4 driver Jaromír Tarabus. Schulz is also the driver to beat in the Hankook-equipped FIA Junior ERC category followed by Max McRae, who led the category after winning Friday night’s Zlín super special stage before slipping back with a powersteering issue this morning.

Barum Czech Rally Zlín concludes tomorrow (Sunday) with three repeated stages over a competitive distance of 92.40 kilometres. The legendary 11.51km Semetín opens the action from 08:23 local time with the 18.00 kilometres of the ultra-challenging Pindula up next from 09:21. The 16.69km Halenkovice test, which runs for the first time at 10:34, will form the rally-deciding Power Stage from 16:05 ahead of the prize giving ceremony in Zlín’s City Square from 17:40.