1st Round, Azores Airlines Rallye 2018 | Surface: Gravel | Special Stages: 15 | Date: March 22-24, 2018
Alexey Lukyanuk began his 2018 ERC campaign by winning the season opener, Portugal’s Azores Airlines Rallye, on March 22-24. The Russian driver took the lead at the rally’s second Special Stage and eventually dominated the first round of the 2018 FIA European Rally Championship.
Following Lukyanuk all the way to the podium, 10-time Azorean champion Ricardo Moura and Bruno Magalhaes came close to winning on home soil, but had no answer for the winner’s rapid pace on the sandy surface and narrow roads of the mid-Atlantic archipelago’s largest island of São Miguel.
On the final day, Lukyanuk found a way to drive around brake issues caused by a leaking caliper to win Saturday morning’s two long stages, nearly doubling his lead ahead of second placed Moura to 37.8s. After that, Moura’s push for the win ended when he clobbered a bank and spun his Fabia R5, while Magalhaes lost more that half a minute with a broken rear differential.
This gave an easy ride to the finish for Lukyanuk, who pulled wide on the last stage’s final meters to celebrate his impending victory with donuts. His showmanship cost some 30 seconds, but with nearly one minute in hand, entertaining the thousands of fans made no difference to the standings, sealing victory by 16.4s alongside co-driver Alexey Arnautov. "I was so happy that I made some donuts before the end. Thanks to my team, my sponsors, they all did really great job. We tried to do our best to be clever and it worked,” said the Russian.
Portuguese champion Carlos Vieira and former Azores winner Bernardo Sousa lost their chances of top five finishes after separate accidents on Saturday’s opening stage. Vieira bent his Hyundai i20 R5’s right-rear suspension and losing four minutes. Contact with a bank sent Sousa’s oil temperatures soaring and forcing him to retire.
On the ERC Junior Under 28 battle, Pirelli-equipped Chris Ingram, the ERC Junior Under 27 champion, claimed the class win on his R5, four-wheel-drive debut. It was a very unfortunate circumstance for Martin Koci, as the Slovakian was leading ERC Junior U28 in his first Azores Rally, until ripping off the front-left wheel of his SKODA Slovakia Motorsport’s Fabia R5 six kilometers from the start of the final stage. “It was my mistake,” said said Koci. “I touched too much in one corner and it ripped the wheel off. I’m sorry for my team, my sponsors, the fans and my family and I’m sad for me.”
Diogo Gago secured the Pirelli-supported ERC Junior Under 27 laurels in his home event, while Juan Carlos Alonso mounted an incredible comeback to win ERC2, after a broken fuel pump on the first day cost him three minutes.