Alexey Lukyanuk and Ralfs Sirmacis are separated by just two seconds after an eventful opening day on round three of the FIA European Rally Championship, the legendary Seajets Acropolis Rally.
Latvian youngster Sirmacis is enjoying an outstanding debut at the top level of the ERC, and led at the end of every stage during day one before an adjustment to the times gave Lukyanuk a slender advantage. Lukyanuk is looking to capitalise on an opening-stage error from the defending champion, points leader and last year's rally winner Kajetan Kajetanowicz. The Lotos Rally Team driver rolled his Ford Fiesta R5 off the road and onto its roof when he took a cut on a slow corner, and lost more than 14 minutes attempting to get back onto the stage.
Competing for the first time in a Michelin-shod Skoda Fabia R5 after finishing runner-up in ERC Junior last season, 21-year-old Sirmacis beat Lukyanuk by 4.4 seconds to win that first stage, then extended his lead to 26s when Russian driver Lukyanuk suffered a puncture on SS2. Lukyanuk responded to win SS3 with an 8.8s margin over Sirmacis, but he lost that and a bit more to a 10s penalty for a jump start, leaving the gap between the pair at 27.2s at midday service.
Their battle became more intense in the afternoon, and they both spun on SS4. Lukyanuk took 7.7s out of Sirmacis there, only for the leader to go 1.2s quicker on SS5. Most drivers complained of heavy tyre wear on the rough stages, but Lukyanuk tried to preserve the life in his Pirelli tyres through the penultimate test and that seemed to pay off on the final stage, where earlier rain had turned the usual dust to mud. Fiesta R5 driver Lukyanuk was quickest on the slippery surface, taking 12.7s out of Sirmacis' lead to reduce it to eight seconds. At the end of the day, Lukyanuk had his jump-start penalty withdrawn, giving him a two-second lead with six stages remaining.
The fight for third has been an all-Skoda affair between Jaromir Tarabus and Lambros Athanassoulas. Greek hero Athanassoulas occupied the final podium position – where he finished on the 2015 edition – during the morning, but was another to spin on SS4 and had his 10s margin to Czech driver Tarabus overturned. Tarabus ended the day 47.5s off the lead, with 19.5s in hand over Athanassoulas, as he eyes his first ERC podium since Barum Czech Rally Zlin in 2013.
Raul Jeets, driving the sister Sports Racing Technologies-run, Skoda Baltic Motorsport-backed Fabia to Sirmacis, has held fifth place since the start but ended the day just two seconds ahead of Jaroslaw Koltun, who got quicker as the day went on and seemed at home in the mud of SS6, beating Sirmacis to the third best time.
ERC2 rivals Wojciech Chuchala and Peter Ranga occupy seventh and eighth respectively, while Tomasz Kasperczyk has enjoyed a clean run to rise to ninth in his Tiger Energy Drink Rally Team Fiesta R5.
After his SS1 roll, Kajetanowicz displayed great speed in adversity, immediately winning SS2 despite a battered and bruised car. He went on to also win stages four and five despite suffering from a stuck throttle and brake problems. He ended the day 23rd but will hope to pick up points towards his title defence on the second leg.
Leg two on Sunday now begins at 08h55 local time and is made up of six stages and 126.68 competitive kilometres. The action starts with the 17.87-kilometre EKO Racing Eleftherohori, followed by the SEAJETS Rengini test lasting 11.61 kilometres. The longest stage of the rally, the 33.86 kilometres of Elatia-Karya, completes the loop, with all three stages then repeated in the afternoon.