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This weekend's Rally Liepāja holds a special place in Nikolay Gryazin’s heart. He claimed two of his three FIA European Rally Championship victories on the high-speed gravel stages. Having graduated to FIA World Rally Championship 2 with Hyundai’s full support for 2020, the Russian is returning to the ERC and to Rally Liepāja as he gets ready for the world championship’s restart on Rally Estonia next month. Welcome back to the ERC Nikolay. You’ve won Rally Liepāja twice so what are the chances of a third victory this year? “Honestly it’s difficult to say. The Hyundai i20 R5 is a new car for me this year and it’s hard to know what the pace of the other drivers will be. My target will be to enjoy the race, do the best we can and understand how we can improve for the next rally.” You did a rally in Lithuania recently. How did that event help with your preparation? “It was more like checking the car, making sure everything was good, working with the new co-driver, more a warm-up race. The stages are more soft and narrow in Lithuania compared to Latvia but it’s gravel and it was easy to feel the car, the tyre, to check the set-up. It was interesting to check our pace against Vaidotas Žala and Teemu Asunmaa. "In 2018 I was doing Rally Elektrėnai in Lithuania and I had a very tough fight with Vaidotas Žala. After I go to Rally Poland for ERC I was more confident to drive without big risks. This is also why I decided to go to this rally in Lithuania to drive against Žala to check our pace and prepare for Liepāja as well.” As you mentioned you will have a new co-driver for your ERC return with Konstantin Aleksandrov replacing Yaroslav Fedorov. Why the change? “Yaroslav has a problem with his visa and it’s really difficult so we decided to go with Konstantin. He’s doing a great job.” How strange was it to hear a different voice when you did your first event with Konstantin having worked with Yaroslav since 2015? “Honestly not because before the race in Lithuania we were playing Richard Burns Rally. I was reading the pacenotes to him, he wrote and after we did some championships, some stages. He was reading the notes to me and after that I was used to hearing him so it’s not a surprise to hear another voice.” As a driver what do you need to do to be successful on Rally Liepaja? “It’s not so much the knowledge of the roads but more the surface because it’s completely different to Italian gravel or Finland gravel. On Latvian and Estonian gravel if you make a big mistake you are going into a slide, into a big drift and the car starts to deaccelerate. It’s difficult for beginners to feel this support from the gravel. Normally people start to drive like on the normal gravel, you need to brake and find the right speed for the corner. "But in this type of gravel you need to push over the limits sometimes because when you go in a corner and you think it’s too fast it will be not easy to brake. You need to believe when you make the big slides the car will stop more effective than if you brake straight. That’s why this rally is really spectacular because fast drivers like [Alexey] Lukyanuk, [Oliver] Solberg and me, for example, are doing quite spectacular sideways. "Normally in Finland it’s spectacular for the jumps but the car is not doing these big slides because otherwise in Finland you will crash and lose the grip. In the gravel in Latvia the big slides are giving you more grip so you need to understand where you need to use the slide. It seems like a drift tournament because people are doing big slides before the corner and it looks good on the camera. "People like rallies in Estonia and Latvia because it’s fast and you need to increase your speed in the entry of the corners and this means it’s difficult to push for the first time. Sometimes you need to have one rally to understand, to feel these fast sections. You also have some slow section but these are rare. But in these slow sections you just need to be precise so you don’t crash into the trees. "When it’s fast, you need to understand where you need to cross the crests, where you need to push, where you need a little brake. Sometimes the corner where you will go with a big brake in Finland you will go flat on the Latvia stages. For me it was easier to win in the years before because I like the fast stages. When it starts to be slow sometimes I am not precise, but when it’s fast you need to work with courage.”

Nikolay Gryazin competing in the ERC in 2018.

The Talsi stages weren’t on the Rally Liepāja itinerary when you last did the event in 2018, but you have knowledge of those roads from doing Rally Talsi in the past. Can that experience help? “I did Rally Talsi with the Peugeot 208 R2 and once I won this race with the Škoda Fabia R5 but it was a long time ago.” Obviously having graduated to the world championship your appearance on Rally Liepāja is just a one off in the ERC. But what do you think about coming back to a series where you competed for three seasons and achieved a lot of success? “For me it’s good. You don’t feel the friendships in the world championship like you do in the ERC. Everybody is trying to do the best for themselves and the factory teams are doing everything to win. "You also have to think much more about tyre strategy, about pace strategy, where you need to push, where you [don’t]. It’s not only about fast driving but the ERC was every time more interesting for your soul because the people there are more friendly. Of course, if you are working for first place you can’t be so friendly with your rivals, but when people who are around you are not your rivals you can speak to them and spend a really nice time with them. "Everybody is quite open so I like to come back into the ERC to feel this atmosphere. But for sure this year will not be the same because there are a lot of fast drivers and it will be tough. We will need to be more serious and more concentrated on the result.” What do you think of the strong Rally Liepāja entry? “It will be more tough compared to when I last drove there in 2018 and 2017. It will be more difficult to compete but our target is to enjoy, to improve the car, to analyse any mistakes. If we don’t have the best pace it could be better for us because then we know what we have to work with.” When it comes to fast drivers, they don’t get much faster than Alexey Lukyanuk. Following his victory on Rally di Roma Capitale, what do you think his threat will be? “He should be good. He will find a good set-up compared to last year because last year it was not his speed for sure. I think it will be a nice battle between him and Solberg and I hope I will be in front of them and beat them!”
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