Latvian youngster reminds rivals of his high-speed credentials
Mārtiṇš Sesks completed a super-charged Saturday afternoon in the FIA European Rally Championship by leading ORLEN 79th Rally Poland with an advantage of 8.2sec following leg one’s eight high-paced gravel stages.
The Team MRF Tyres driver was 4.3sec off top spot in 22nd overall following Friday evening’s Mikołajki Arena super special stage after he ran wide on a left-hand corner.
But the Latvian underlined his intent by clocking the fastest time through Saturday’s opening test, the 18.58km Świętajno run, to shoot up to second place overall, 0.2sec behind BRC Racing Team’s pacesetter Hayden Paddon.
Paddon, the ERC points leader in a Pirelli-equipped Hyundai i20 N Rally2, responded with the quickest time on SS3 and SS4, but Sesks remained in close contention, just 1.4sec behind at the midday service halt in Mikołajki.
A trio of fastest times followed from the 23-year-old during the afternoon loop, leaving Sesks and co-driver Renars Francis on top in their Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 by 9.5sec with just the repeat of the Mikołajki Arena super special remaining. The pairing once more took a cautious approach to the super special stage, allowing Paddon to claw back 1.3sec, but it unlikely to have dented the intent of Sesks.
"It wasn't bad, still some things to work on but, in a way, it was fine with the speed,” said Sesks. “Sometimes I was too fast, sometimes too slow, it's like when you dance and everything goes well. MRF and the team have done a great job and that's why we are at the top.”
Paddon reckoned he could have gone faster during Saturday morning’s loop of three stages but explained he wasn’t prepared to push to the maximum.
“When you are driving with the championship in mind you need to eliminate as much risk as you can,” said the New Zealander. “There’s a bit of a fight at the moment but we can’t think about that until maybe tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, we need to keep doing our own rally and keep playing the long game.”
Last year’s winner Miko Marczyk is third overall, 41.4sec off the lead, after dropping time with an off-road moment on SS2 and a pop-off valve issue on SS4. “We would like to be in the fight for the top but if I will push more something could happen,” the Polish hero said. “At this level, this is my pace but tomorrow I will try one more time.”
Competing in Poland for the first time, Motorsport Ireland Rally Aacademy’s Josh McErlean is just 8.7sec behind Marczyk in a fine fourth but only 1.5sec ahead of Mads Østberg.
Eighth after the morning loop on his first high-speed gravel event since Rally Finland in 2021, set-up changes to make his Citroën C3 Rally2 “stiffer” for the afternoon resulted in the third fastest time on SS7 and a far happier Norwegian.
Mathieu Franceschi is sixth overall despite a scare on SS3 when he hit a rock on the line. The Racing Factory’s Mikko Heikkilä holds seventh place after reporting his car “sliding way too much” in the morning. Andrea Mabellini has adapted well to the challenge of driving on fast gravel stages in a Rally2 car for the first time and is eighth with Simone Tempestini ninth and Erik Cais completing the top 10.
European champion Efrén Llarena is 11th as he continues to “discover” his Fabia RS Rally2 on gravel. Pontus Tidemand and Simone Campedelli are 12th and 13th with Filip Mareš 14th following a low-speed roll on a left-hand corner on stage four. Poland’s Grzegorz Grzyb completes the list of points scorers in 15th overall with Dennis Rådström one place behind after reporting a lack of power.
Tom Kristensson endured a Saturday to forget, stopping on SS2 to change a damaged tyre before being further delayed when his Citroën C3 Rally2 got stuck in gear. But it would get worse for the Polish champion when he retired with a broken steering arm after he hit a rock on the next stage. He has elected not to restart on day two.
Four stages each run twice provide the challenge on Sunday’s deciding leg, which begins with westerly runs Barczewo (10.73km) from 08:05 and Biskupiec (12.30km) from 08:55. Crews head back to Mikołajki via the Gmina Mrągowo (9.14km) and Mikołajki (6.68km) stages. Mikołajki is an extensively reworked version of the Mikołajki Max stage used previously. Sunday’s morning stages are rerun in the afternoon with Gmina Mrągowo forming the points-paying Power Stage from 17:05.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. M Sesks / R Francis LAT Škoda Fabia RS 53min 38.1sec
2. H Paddon / J Kennard NZL Hyundai i20 N +8.2sec
3. M Marczyk / S Gospodarczyk POL Škoda Fabia RS +41.4sec
4. J McErlean / J Rowan IRL Hyundai i20 N +50.1sec
5. M Østberg / P Barth NOR Citroën C3 Rally2 +51.6sec
6. M Franceschi / J Escartefigue FRA Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo +53.5sec