LLARENA SNATCHES FIRST ERC WIN WITH AZORES POWER STAGE CHARGE
Efrén Llarena claimed a sensational victory at the Azores Rallye after stealing the top spot from hometown hero Ricardo Maura on the very last stage.
The Spaniard left it late, but his stunning drive on the rally-deciding Power Stage secured a maiden FIA European Rally Championship win for him, his co-driver Sara Fernández and Team MRF Tyres.
Moura appeared to be on course for a repeat of his 2016 victory having led from the very first stage in his Škoda Fabia Rally2. The Azorean looked comfortable on the stages, but came under increasing pressure as the afternoon developed.
Llarena was never far behind and he made his intentions clear on the penultimate Sete Cidades test to pull back a massive 7.7s. Heading into the Ribeira Grande Power Stage, just 6.1s separated the two.
With victory on the cards, Llarena put in the drive of his life. He set a pace that was more than one-second per kilometre faster than Moura’s, overturning the local star's lead in dramatic fashion to emerge 2.6s clear at the finish.
"It’s amazing," beamed Llarena. "We were completely full attack and at the end we made it, it's just absolutely incredible!"
"We pushed like hell," he continued. "We were at 200 per cent for the whole of the final stage and I am really proud of my team and MRF Tyres."
ERC returnee Simon Wagner was locked into the top-end battle on Saturday, but lost touch with the leaders on Sunday morning.
The young Austrian eventually ended 28.7s behind Moura after picking up a flat tyre on SS13. His podium bid was simplified when Ken Torn’s Ford Fiesta Rally2 developed mechanical issues early in the day. Wagner was also the highest-placed ERC-Michelin Talent Factory driver.
Simone Tempestini claimed a brace of stage wins on Sunday to leapfrog Fafe runner-up Armindo Araújo and take fourth place.
The Romanian was only 19.0s down on the podium finishers and had 57.6s in hand over Araújo, who moved into the championship lead despite battling to find the optimum set-up on his Fabia.
Bruno Magalhães was the only non-Škoda driver in the top 10. He brought his Hyundai i20 N Rally2 home 1m13.9s adrift of Araújo after completing the final loop with damaged rear suspension. Simone Campedelli was 9.0s slower in seventh after damaging a brake pipe during the morning loop.
Set-up tweaks paid off for Campedelli’s Team MRF Tyres colleague Norbert Herczig as he climbed four places to finish eighth. Herczig’s ascent up the leaderboard was aided by Italy’s Alberto Battistolli rolling on the Power Stage.
Luckily for Battistolli spectators were on hand to push the battered car back onto all four wheels. He finished, but slipped from sixth to ninth. Javier Pardo also tumbled down to 13th when a broken driveshaft left his Fabia with only two-wheel drive.
Martins Sesks rounded off the top 10 after he claimed his second consecutive ERC Open victory in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 Kit. The Latvian suffered from a lack of power but finished comfortably ahead of Joan Vinyes’ Suzuki Swift.
Jon Armstrong restarted after retiring in a water splash on Saturday and went on to claim ERC3 honours in an M-Sport Poland Ford Fiesta Rally3. He set multiple top ten stage times and gained valuable experience for his FIA Junior WRC title bid.