Alexey Lukyanuk continues to lead auto24 Rally Estonia at the end of the first full day of action on round six of the FIA European Rally Championship.
The rapid Russian, driving a Ford Fiesta R5 on Pirelli tyres, won the short city stage in Tartu that opened the rally on Friday evening and remained the man to beat on the flat-out gravel stages that made up the majority of Saturday's route.
However, while 2015 event winner Lukyanuk won the first run over each of the four different forest stages, he was outpaced on each of the second runs by Ralfs Sirmacis. The 22-year old Latvian, who claimed the ERC Junior win on the rally last year, lost ten seconds when he overshot a junction on SS6 Rüa - the longest of the event at nearly 30 kilometres - but there has otherwise been little to separate the pair.
Following another street stage in Elva to close out the day, Lukyanuk has an advantage of 20.1s over Sirmacis, driving a familiar Škoda Fabia R5 on Michelin tyres but with a different co-driver, Māris Kulšs, alongside him after his usual navigator Arturs Šimins went down with a fever just before the rally.
Defending ERC champion and points leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz sits third overall despite a series of problems on his LOTOS Rally Team Ford Fiesta R5. He was less than 20s off the lead in the middle of the day, but picked up a 10s penalty for being late out of service after a gearbox change and then lost power steering on SS9, leaving him a minute-and-a-half down overnight.
The ERC2 cars always go well on the fast stages of Rally Estonia, and category leader Rainer Aus sits fourth overall, just 4.9s away from repeating his outright podium from 2015. His fellow Estonians Egon Kaur and Siim Plangi were also part of the fight at the front before being halted by mechanical problems.
Estonia's ERC regular Raul Jeets is fifth overall in the sister Škoda Baltic Motorsport-backed, Sports Racing Technologies-run Fabia to Sirmacis. He delighted the crowds in Elva by scoring his second ERC stage win – in the place where he took his first twelve months ago.
Jeets has been closely matched with Polish Fiesta driver Jarosław Kołtun all day, with 24.6s separating them overnight. Another Pole in a Ford, the country's reigning champion Łukasz Habaj, is seventh despite losing over three minutes when he stopped to change a puncture on SS8. Compatriot Tomasz Kasperczyk is down in 17th having received over two minutes of penalties for being late into parc fermé on Friday night while he fixed damage sustained when he hit a kerb on the very first corner of the rally.
ERC regular Jaromír Tarabus was third on that first stage but was forced to retire on his way to service at the start of the morning with engine damage, a legacy of a large rock that pierced his radiator on the Qualifying Stage. Young Japanese duo Takamoto Katsuta and Hiroki Arai – backed by Toyota, entered by Tommi Mäkinen Racing and run by Markko Märtin's MM-Motorsport operation – both rolled their Fiesta R5s on their debuts in the ERC. Katsuta crashed on SS3 but will restart for leg two, while Arai ran as high as sixth before his spectacular accident on SS6 brought an early end to his rally.
Aus ended the first leg fourth overall and with a 14-minute lead in ERC2 after the similarly-speedy Kaur and Plangi hit trouble. Kaur led Plangi and Aus through the day's first two stages, before Plangi stopped in SS4 with a clutch issue on his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X. Kaur had been second fastest on SS2 and still in an overall podium position when his Evo IX suffered a fuel supply problem on SS8. Taking second was Mait Maarend, who spent five minutes off the road on SS3. Aron Domżała was third in class and ninth overall before an intercooler problem on SS7.
Niinemäe heads Baltic battle in ERC Junior
Estonian junior champion Miko-Ove Niinemäe has led the ERC Junior fight at home since the first stage, but has been engaged in a close duel all day with fellow Peugeot 208 R2 driver Nikolay Gryazin from nearby Latvia. A pair of fastest times brought Gryazin to within 2.5s of the lead at mid-day service, but Niinemäe responded to be quickest on all of the following four stages. However, only 10.6s separate the two drivers, who sit eighth and ninth overall. In third, points leader Chris Ingram struggled to match the pace earlier in the day but became more confident as it went on and saw off a challenge from fellow ADAC Opel Rallye Junior Team Adam R2 driver Marijan Griebel.
Eighteen-year old Estonian Gustav Kruuda got faster in his new Ford Fiesta R2T to end the day fifth, five seconds ahead of the third works Opel driver Julius Tannert and six ahead of Łukasz Pieniążek. Joonas Tokee is eighth in front of Kristóf Klausz and Marco Cid. Finnish debutant Alex Forsström had just resolved an overheating issue when damage forced him to stop, while Dominik Brož went off the road.
Six more stages will be contested on leg two on Sunday, totalling 82.26 kilometres. The Ristimäe, Vissi and Saverna tests will all be run twice before the finish in Tartu at 17h00.