Spaniard Nil Solans bagged his first FIA European Rally Championship (ERC) victory after a dominant drive at Rally Serras de Fafe - Felgueiras - Cabreira e Boticas today (March 13).
The 29-year-old left his rivals floundering as relentless rain, thick fog and muddy gravel tracks bombarded the season opener in northern Portugal.
Solans lay fourth following Friday night’s superspecial stage in Fafe’s town centre. A gamble to open the road on Saturday paid off immediately when he took the lead on the first gravel speed test, and he controlled the rally from then onwards.
Adverse conditions forced the cancellation of two stages on Saturday, but the Spaniard continued to consolidate his place at the top and carried a huge advantage into the final day.
Drier weather on Sunday morning made the stages a little less treacherous, but Solans had no reason to push anyway. He had plenty of time to play with.
The Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 pilot remained calm despite a spin on the penultimate test. He maintained a healthy gap and finally sealed his maiden ERC triumph by 55.7sec.
“We were consistent and we didn't have time to prepare for this rally, so we are very happy with the result,” said Solans at the finish.
“We are thinking now if we can go to Azores. I think our entry is done, but we need the [financial] support to make it happen, so we will see," he added.
Armindo Araújo became Solans’ nearest challenger after stealing second from Georg Linnamäe on the rally-ending Power Stage. The local ace came to Fafe primarily for Portuguese championship honours - which he claimed on Saturday evening - and never lacked pace in his Skoda Fabia Rally2.
A deflated Linnamäe completed the podium 3.8sec behind Araújo. The rally had started strongly for the Estonian, but his pace began to fizzle out when set-up issues slowed him on Saturday afternoon. At the final ultra-slippery Lameirinha test, Linnamäe described his Polo as “undriveable”.
Javier Pardo was the highest-placed ERC-Michelin Talent Factory member with fourth in a Fabia. He finished 1min 58.6sec out of touch with the leading trio, but collected a pair of fastest times despite intercom and pop-off valve troubles on the final day.
Pardo spent much of the rally battling with Simone Tempestini’s similar car, but the Italian retired after hitting a wall on SS17. His demise left Skoda man Alberto Battistolli to complete the top five 36.4sec behind Pardo.
Team Hyundai Portugal driver Bruno Magalhães moved up to sixth after Norbert Herczig retired his Skoda on the road section to SS17. Magalhães made developments to his i20 N’s set-up throughout the weekend and trailed Battistolli by a hefty 3min 20.6sec by the finish.
Martins Sesks was 2min 2.0sec behind in his ERC Open category winning Fabia Rally2 Kit. The 22-year-old was 29.4sec clear of José Pedro Fontes’ Citroën C3 Rally2, with Ricardo Teodósio’s i20 just 4.8sec further back after suffering a broken rear driveshaft on Saturday morning.
Local driver Pedro Almeida, making his return to the ERC’s top division following two seasons competing at Rally4 level, brought his Skoda home 10min 19.2sec adrift of the pacesetters to round off the leaderboard.
Efrén Llarena had a rally to forget after he damaged his Fabia’s radiator SS2, but the Spaniard continued and finished 10th among the ERC scorers. Ken Torn restarted following his Saturday retirement and salvaged five points with the Power Stage win in his Ford Fiesta Rally2.
Kaspar Kasari pounced when Dmitry Feofanov spun on the very last stage to top an all-Fiesta Rally3 ERC3 leaderboard by 31.5sec. Spanish debutant Óscar Palomo was the victor in ERC4 thanks to a mature drive in his Peugeot 208 Rally4 that belied his 19 years.
The championship moves to Portugal’s Azores archipelago in the mid-Atlantic Ocean in less than two weeks’ time for round two. The Azores Rallye takes place from March 25-27.