Slovenian Home Run on Mahle ecoRally

  • Local hero Franko Špacapan claims victory in Slovenia’s round of the 2023 Bridgestone FIA ecoRally Cup
  • Former champion Eneko Conde Pujana finishes second to complete a 1-2 for the Kia E-Niro
  • Guest star Beitske Visser enjoys learning a new discipline in the sport

Rallying with zero tailpipe emissions whirred back into action at the fifth round of this year’s all-electric Bridgestone FIA ecoRally Cup in Slovenia this weekend (September 8-9).

The sixth annual Mahle Eco Rally, based in Nova Gorica, began with history being made. The town sits right on the border between Slovenia and Italy, and the mayor of Nova Gorica, Matej Arčon, was joined for the first time by his counterpart from the Italian side of the border, Rodolfo Ziberna the mayor of Gorizia, to flag the cars away from the towns’ shared Europe Square at the start of the event.

In this spirit of co-operation between Slovenia and Italy, the 20 competing crews set off for the opening day’s 208 km route criss-crossing the mountain roads on both sides of the border.

As a regularity rally run on open public highways, the Bridgestone FIA ecoRally Cup is not a flat-out dash over timed special stages. Instead, the crews must achieve target times on the regularity stages within the speed limits applied to everyday traffic or incur penalties for being early or late at the check-in points.

Not only that, but the level of energy consumed by the cars over the entire route is also measured as the deciding factor in determining a crew’s performance. As an amateur series open only to unmodified showroom electric vehicles, the Bridgestone FIA ecoRally Cup acts as an ideal barometer for the efficiency of all-electric motoring.

These many different permutations saw a highly active leader board. Slovenian crew Franko Špacapan and co-driver Sebastian Kobal took the lead after the first regularity in their Kia E-Niro, only to plunge to eighth on the second test as the little Renault Zoë of fellow Slovenians Aljoša Makarovič and co-driver Tadej Špacapan took up the cudgels.

Their advantage lasted until the penultimate test of the day, when Makarovič and Špacapan also lost seven positions and the series regulars began to move up the order – Belgian pairing Bernard Heine and Laurent Secretin taking the lead in their Volkswagen ID3.

Behind the Belgians, French pair Didier Malga and Anne Valerie Bonnel climbed to third in their Kia EV6, while Spanish former champion Eneko Conde Pujana and co-driver Lukas Sergnese Bermudez were poised in fourth place in their Kia E-Niro.

Precisely controlling the pace and maintaining the lowest possible energy consumption brings with it very different challenges in comparison with most motorsport events – not least finding ways to keep cool without turning on the power-sapping air conditioning units. With no recharging until the overnight halt, and with temperatures soaring in the glorious Slovenian late summer, keeping hydrated was of paramount importance to the competitiors.

Among those new to the discipline in Slovenia was Beitske Visser, the Dutch female racer who has starred in Formula E, W Series and endurance racing. Getting to grips with the challenge of ecoRally was a totally new experience to her and co-driver Arthur Kammerer – a BMW sim racing specialist – but one that she relished.

“It’s been a really cool experience so far,” said Beitske, who would finish 16th overall. “Normally I am used to going as fast as possible, so it takes a bit of getting used to. I picked up a few penalty points early on for that!”

The second day’s running took the field out over a 259 km route and nine regularity stages, reaching as far as the port of Koper on the Adriatic coast. For most of the six morning stages the Volkswagen of Heine and Secretin held the advantage but a slip on the last stage before the mid-day break plunged them down to seventh overall.

“It was such a small thing, really only a second’s mistake,” said Bernard. “It’s really a measure of how professional everyone’s approach is becoming in the series. We are amateurs, but the dedication and the focus that you need to be at the front is making the standard higher and higher. But we are still in the fight!”

The main benefactors from this switch-around on the leader board were Franko Špacapan and Sebastian Kobal, who completed their climb back up the order to take the lead as the competitors enjoyed a warm welcome in Koper’s spectacular 15th century Praetorian Palace.

Leaving Koper fully refreshed, the field had to complete just three more regularity stages before the finish line in Nova Gorica. Nobody could unseat Špacapan and Kobal from the lead, however. An emotional victory on home soil was confirmed and a delighted Špacapan crossed the line in a flag-bedecked Kia E-Niro.

“I am very, very happy,” said Franko at the finish. “The fight was up and down all the time, it was not easy. Over nearly 500 kilometres there were maybe 15 cars that could have won it at times, so to win like this is a great feeling.”

Second place on the road fell to Italian driver Guido Guerrini and his Polish co-driver Artur Prusak in their Kia E-Niro, but when all of the energy consumption was evaluated they were passed by Eneko Conde Pujana and Lukas Sergnese Bermudez, who were followed by  Aljoša Makarovič and Tadej Špacapan.

The result of the thrilling encounter in Slovenia has thrown the title battle wide open in the series with three rounds remaining. The action resumes on the Eco Rallye Bilbao Petronor on September 29-October 1.