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European Rally Championship leaders Alexey Lukyanuk and Dmitry Eremeev mastered the changeable weather to perfection by topping the Rally Fafe Montelongo ranking at the completion of Saturday’s opening leg. With stage conditions switching between dry, damp and wet, driver skill and tyre grip made the difference on a challenging day in northern Portugal, although compound choice presented a constant headache for crews and their teams based at the service park in Fafe. Throughout leg one, drivers frequently selected tyres expecting dry weather to prevail only for localised showers to coat the stages with water and leave them struggling on covers unsuitable for the conditions. Lukyanuk, driving a Saintéloc Junior Team Citroën C3 R5 on Pirelli tyres, was fastest on six of today’s nine stages to reach the overnight halt with an advantage of 38.3s following a dramatic final loop of stages. “We built some gap and tried to control it,” said the Russian. “We had no drama, no moments so it looks like, all in all, it was not so bad, even though we were struggling at times in the loops. It was a crazy experience but a positive feeling.” Lukyanuk’s fortunes were in complete contrast to his main title rivals running behind him through the all-asphalt stages. Craig Breen, who scored the first ERC stage win for Team MRF Tyres on stage four, was in the podium fight when he got caught out on a coating of oil nearing the end of stage eight. Although he completed the run, he did so with the left-rear wheel missing from his Hyundai i20 R5 and would retire.

Oliver Solberg's team had work to do after a crash on Shakedown. Photo: ERC

After his family-run team worked through the night to fix his badly damaged Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 following his shakedown crash, Oliver Solberg was on course to reward their efforts with third place, only for a power issue to develop on stage eight. It cost the 19-year-old ERC1 Junior Championship leader more than six minutes and another eight minutes were dropped as he limped through stage nine. Behind Lukyanuk, Iván Ares emerged as the surprise of the day with a stage victory on his way to the provisional runner-up spot. Although he’s shown strong pace on the ERC-counting Rally Islas Canarias in the past, his performance in the difficult conditions in a Hyundai i20 R5 was exemplary. Grégoire Munster leads ERC1 Junior in his BMA Autosport-run Hyundai, the Luxembourg driver completing Saturday’s action with his first outright European championship stage win in a fine third overall. However, Rallye Team Spain’s Efrén Llarena is just 2.6s behind with MOL Racing Team’s Norbert Herczig a mere 12.5s further back. “It was difficult but really good,” said Munster.

Craig Breen had tore a wheel off after hitting a patch of oil. Photo: ERC

“We made the best out of it, we tried to have the best choice but nobody had the perfect choice. It’s been a positive day but I don’t think about the podium. There are still nine stages to go and we only did half of the work. In these tricky conditions anything can happen.” ORLEN Team’s Polish champion Miko Marczyk is third in ERC1 Junior in sixth overall followed by category rivals Brose Motorsport’s Dominik Dinkel, Yacco ACCR Team’s Erik Cais and Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy’s Callum Devine. Hyundai Motor España driver Surhayen Pernia completes the top 10, while Yoann Bonato is third in the absolute classification. Guillaume de Mevius is P11 on his first rally since February, double ERC Junior champion Marijan Griebel is P12 following a puncture on SS6. Former Austrian title winner Niki Mayr-Melnhof is P13, Albert von Thurn und Taxis P14 and ERC3/ERC3 Junior pacesetter Pep Bassas P15 for Rallye Team Spain. After going fastest in shakedown on Friday, ERC1 Junior Emil Lindholm crashed out on SS3 and won’t restart due to his Team MRF Tyres’ Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo being beyond immediate repair.
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