Alexey Lukyanuk leads round four of the FIA European Rally Championship after snatching the initiative from Kajetan Kajetanowicz at the end of a fascinating duel through day two of the spectacular Azores Airlines Rallye.
Russian driver Lukyanuk had signalled his intent at the start of the day when he won Pico de Pedra Golfe 1 to shoot from third to first, only for Kajetanowicz to fight back on a foggy Feteiras MEO test to reclaim the lead. The Pole then won the famous Sete Cidades stage to end the morning loop with 12.2 seconds in hand over his rival.
Despite it being his first time competing in the Azores, Lukyanuk was unbeatable on the repeat loop in the afternoon, bringing the lead down to 6.7s prior to the second run through Sete Cidades. There, both drivers hit a bank on the long and challenging stage but Kajetanowicz damaged his suspension geometry and dropped 16.5s to his rival. It means that Lukyanuk takes a 9.8s advantage over his fellow Pirelli-equipped Ford Fiesta R5 driver into the final day.
Having been well within the lead fight on the opening day, multiple Azorean champion Ricardo Moura lacked the confidence to keep up with the two ERC title contenders in his Michelin-supplied Fiesta and has slipped to 40s off the lead. He is however on course for a third podium in four events at home, with 24.3s in hand over Ralfs Sirmaics. The recently-turned 22-year-old Latvian began the day just one second behind leader Kajetanowicz in his Sports Racing Technologies-run Skoda Fabia R5, but was left unhappy with his pacenotes and tyre choices in varying weather conditions.
The battle for fifth place has remained open between a number of drivers, but it has been headed since the end of the morning by the 2014 Portuguese champion Pedro Meireles in a Skoda and his successor Jose Pedro Fontes, who shot up from 10th to sixth with a great time on the first run through Sete Cidades in his Citroen Vodafone Team DS3 R5. They are split by 15.8s, and David Botka is only a further 12.4s behind and enjoying by far his cleanest run yet in the DS3 he is driving in 2016 after winning the ER2 title last season. He does only have 1.9s in hand over Jaroslav Orsak though, with the Czech driver producing a great first drive in his brand new Ford Fiesta R5.
Raul Jeets has grown in confidence on his first trip to the Azores in the second SRT Skoda, climbing from 19th to ninth during the day with a pair of top-five stage times at the end. Antonin Tlustak remains in the top 10 in his Fabia ahead of local driver Luis Rego, who was delayed by a puncture on the first running of Sete Cidades. After running first on the road all day, Miguel Barbosa is 12th ahead of Ricardo Teodosio, who found top-10 pace in the final two stages.
Despite battling a fever, Jaroslaw Koltun is within reach of a fourth top-10 place from as many events in 14th ahead of Carlos Vieira, who had a number of adventures in his Citroen. Following a spin on SS6, seven-time event winner Fernando Peres slipped back to 16th, while Giacomo Costenaro had to do the latter half of the second run through Sete Cidades without power steering on his Peugeot 208 T16.
Joao Barros had been sixth when he crashed out on the first run over Sete Cidades, one stage after fellow Portuguese driver Joaquim Alves went off. Compatriots Diogo Salvi and Carlos Martins were forced out by mechanical issues.
The rally now concludes today [Saturday] with six more stages and 102.76 kilometres of competitive action. Between two runs over Graminhais and Tronqueira – each lasting over 20 kilometres – the Grupo Marques superspecial and Vila Franca Sao Bras stage from Thursday will be revisited.