Mikko Heikkilä heads the pack with ERC rivals in hot pursuit in Portugal

Mikko Heikkilä heads the pack with ERC rivals in hot pursuit in Portugal

Finnish star edges Mads Østberg by 4.2sec on frantic Saturday
Mikko Heikkilä will carry a 4.2sec lead into Sunday’s final leg at the opening round of the 2023 FIA European Rally Championship, Rally Serras de Fafe, Felgueiras, Boticas, Vieira do Minho e Cabeceiras de Basto.

The reigning Finnish champion, at the wheel of a Michelin-equipped Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo, initially moved in front on SS3 before slipping back to second place as the morning loop progressed. However, a time-topping performance – coupled with a delay for Craig Breen – on SS7 means it’s Heikkilä who leads at the overnight halt in Fafe, with Mads Østberg in second and Hayden Paddon third.

“For sure it was quite challenging,” Heikkilä said at the completion of the morning loop. “For me the most difficult part was to find the grip or the muddy places because you don’t know beforehand and it was quite difficult to guess. I have never faced these conditions before because in Finland, if it’s raining or wet, it doesn’t get this muddy. But it’s good learning and the pace has been okay, so we are in the fight.”

Following the event-opening super special in Fafe on Friday night, which was won by double Portuguese champion Ricardo Teodósio, leg one continued this morning on rain-hit gravel roads east of the host city.

Driving a MRF Tyres-equipped Citroën C3 Rally2, Østberg capitalised running first on the road to take the lead by 2.3sec ahead of Paddon and Erik Cais.

Breen completed the 9.64-kilometre test 12.6sec off top spot in 17th position and rued his decision not to select first position in the starting order, a right he’d earned after winning Friday afternoon’s Qualifying Stage.

But with SS3 being comparatively dry compared with the previous run, Breen’s fourth-place starting position proved to be advantageous for the Pirelli-equipped Hyundai i20 Rally2 driver, and he won the stage to shoot up to fourth position in the overall classification, 7.9sec behind Heikkilä.

Østberg was quickest again on SS4 and, with SS5 cancelled for safety reasons, the Norwegian returned to Fafe for the midday service halt leading by 1.1sec.

With Breen on a charge through SS6 and Østberg reporting not being comfortable with the handling of his car, plus a strange smell onboard, Irishman Breen now led by 1.5sec over Heikkilä with Østberg back in third.

But Breen’s hopes of a sixth ERC event win were dashed when he was forced to stop to change a damaged tyre less than halfway through SS7, the 15.05-kilometre Boticas/Sr do Monte test, as Heikkilä led again, despite reporting an issue with his car’s battery at the stage finish.

Behind third-placed Paddon, Georg Linnamaë is fourth with Mārtiṇš Sesks fifth and Miko Marczyk sixth. Miklós Csomós completed SS7 in seventh place but was concerned about a high water temperature reading from his car’s dashboard.

The battle for victory on the opening round of the ERC’s 70th-anniversary season continues tomorrow (Sunday) with four double-use stages over a competitive distance of 84.28 kilometres.

Leading positions after Saturday:
1. M Heikkilä / S Vaaleri FIN Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo 46min 4.4sec
2. M Østberg / P Barth NOR Citroën C3 Rally2 +4.2sec
3. H Paddon / J Kennard NZL Hyundai i20 N Rally2 +17.2sec
4. G Linnamäe / J Morgan EST Hyundai i20 N Rally2 +21.3sec
5. M Sesks / R Francis LAT Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +37.7sec
6. M Marczyk / S Gospodarczyk POL Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +43.0sec

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