European Rally Championship: Heikkilä takes late Saturday lead in Hungary

European Rally Championship: Heikkilä takes late Saturday lead in Hungary

Mikko Heikkilä holds a narrow lead in his bid to give Toyota’s GR Yaris Rally2 a debut FIA European Rally Championship victory after he completed leg one of V-Híd Rally Hungary leading Mārtiņš Sesks by 2.3sec.


Sesks had been on course to complete the opening day of the 2024 ERC season opener on top with a lead of 3.8sec with one stage remaining. But when the Team MRF Tyres driver reached the finish of SS7 with a damaged rear-left tyre on his identical Yaris, Heikkilä was able to regain first place, despite being hampered by a reported pop-off valve issue aboard his Michelin-equipped machine.


“I’m really happy for us because we’ve been doing a good job on these stages but again this pop-off, it’s a really stupid thing,” the Finn said. “We lost a lot of time because of that. I’m happy with how we’re performing but, unfortunately, we gave away 20sec today for the other reasons.”


Heikkilä arrived at midday service leading Sesks by 0.4sec but was surprised to be ahead of his Latvian rival rather than behind.


“We didn’t have liquid for the windscreen washer and on the long stage there was mud in the corner so the windscreen got fully with mud and I couldn’t wipe it away so I didn’t see and we lost six seconds,” the Finn said. “I was afraid we would lose more but luckily we didn’t.”


Of his SS7 delay, Sesks said: “I don’t know where [the damage] was, I would say three kilometres or something.”


Simone Tempestini took a stage win on his way to third place at the overnight halt on only his second start in Škoda’s latest-generation Fabia. The multiple Romanian champion is 5.7sec ahead of last year’s ERC title winner Hayden Paddon in a Pirelli-equipped Hyundai i20 N Rally2.


Qualifying Stage winner Miko Marczyk is fifth overnight, one place in front of home hero and SS4 winner Miklós Csomós, who dropped a handful of seconds with a half-spin in the afternoon.


After landing his maiden ERC stage win on SS2, Mathieu Franceschi rolled on SS3, reaching the stage finish with damaged front tyres and a dented Fabia RS Rally2. But he responded in the afternoon with two stage wins to complete day one in seventh place.


“The first stage was really nice with my first scratch in the ERC,” Michelin-equipped Franceschi said. “But in the second one we tried to push maybe too much and in a right corner. I was too fast and clipped the bank and we rolled. During this moment we lost 10 seconds maybe but 100 metres after that the tyres lost air and that’s why we lost more than one minute. But it’s part of the game.”

After winning Friday evening’s super special stage, Erik Cais blamed “pessimistic pacenotes” for not being able to replicate his early rally speed. The Czech is eighth after seven stages having moved ahead of Andrea Mabellini on SS6 after the Italian was delayed in dust thrown up by Kristóf Klausz, who had stopped to change a wheel.


ERC3 champion Jon Armstrong (Ford Fiesta Rally2) is 10th followed by Péter Ranga, Simon Wagner, Philip Allen and Martin László.


Frigyes Turán, the Rally Hungary winner in 2019, was delayed by a left-rear puncture on SS3 and a reported powersteering issue on SS4. He’s down in 17th as a result.


Former European champion Efrén Llarena’s bid to regain the ERC crown he lost to Hayden Paddon in 2023 suffered an early setback when he stopped on SS3 with radiator damage and retired.


“We landed with the front of the car and the bumper came inside the radiator and made a really small hole,” the Team MRF Tyres-entered Llarena explained. “After that a water leak started so we’re really disappointed.”


Llarena also inflicted damage to the left rear of his Fabia with a “massive moment, fifth gear” on SS2, that damaged his car’s rear spoiler mounting.


ERC title contender Mads Østberg was declared a non-starter after he was hospitalised with a lung infection on Friday morning. Although the Norwegian is already in recovery mode, he was ordered to rest rather than chase back-to-back Rally Hungary victories.


Up next on V-Híd Rally Hungary is the 15.34-kilometre Iszka test. The 18.50-kilometre event-deciding Naglőtér Power Stage is due to begin at 17:05.


Leading positions after Saturday:

1. M Heikkilä / K Temonen FIN Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 59min 41.0sec
2. M Sesks / R Francis LAT Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 +2.3sec
3. S Tempestini / S Itu ROU Škoda Fabia RS +6.3sec
4. H Paddon / J Kennard NZL Hyundai i20 N +12.0s
5. M Marczyk / S Gospodarczyk POL Škoda Fabia RS +21.7sec
6. M Csomós / A Nagy HUN Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo +26.6
 


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