The rally stars of tomorrow excelled on leg one of Rally Liepāja, with Latvian sensation Ralfs Sirmacis on course for a home FIA European Rally Championship victory, despite less than a second separating the ERC Junior title rivals in the winner-takes-all decider.
Looking to score his third win from five events since stepping up to the top level of the ERC earlier this year, 22-year-old Sirmacis has set a searing pace on home soil. After winning each of the first five gravel stages in his Sports Racing Technologies-run, Michelin-equipped Škoda Fabia R5, he leads by 30.7secs overnight.
Alexey Lukyanuk swapped his regular Ford Fiesta R5 for his ERC2-specification Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X for this event, but that hasn't stopped the Russian being a leading contender on Pirelli tyres. Some errors under braking due to the different driving dynamics of the production model cost him time in his battle with Sirmacis earlier in the day, but he ended it by winning the two runs over the new Great Amber street stage in Liepāja itself.
Kajetan Kajetanowicz is 15s further back in third, and remains set to secure his second ERC title tomorrow. It wasn't an entirely straightforward day for the LOTOS Rally Team star however, who filled the front of his Ford Fiesta R5 with grass when he made a deep cut on SS3, raising temperatures and cutting the power, before then having to perform a reset on SS4 to cure a separate power steering fault.
On gravel, Estonian driver Siim Plangi extracted similar performance to Lukyanuk from his Mitsubishi, reproducing the form that took him to second place on the same event last February when it was run on snow and ice. Third overall prior to the Great Amber stages, he's still only 3.2s behind Kajetanowicz. Latvian Jānis Vorobjovs is another quick Evo X driver in fifth, climbing up from eighth during the morning loop.
Ford Fiesta R5 drivers Łukasz Habaj and Frank Tore Larsen have been in a close battle since the first stage, when they posted identical times. Habaj, who recently abandoned his Polish title defence to contest more ERC events and improve his driving on gravel in particular, was marginally quicker than Larsen on the subsequent stages but only 12.5s separate the pair overnight, with Norwegian Larsen also pleased with his performance on his second ERC start.
Raul Jeets was eighth in the second SRT Škoda before he rolled it on a slow corner on SS5, with a fire at the front of the car preventing him from continuing. That promoted local driver Raimonds Kisiels into eighth in his similar car. Dávid Botka held tenth for most of the day in his Citroën DS3 R5, a bad first run around Great Amber costing him in a battle for ninth with the man poised to succeed him as ERC2 champion, Wojciech Chuchała.
Tomasz Kasperczyk sits 13th overnight in his Fiesta R5, but C-Rally team-mate Jarosław Kołtun was forced to stop after power steering and brake issues over the first two stages.
The battle to become ERC Junior champion is going down to the wire on the deciding round in Latvia, with less than a second separating Opel team-mates Marijan Griebel and Chris Ingram in their winner-takes-all scrap. The current points leader Ingram made a great start to the day, leading the category by 5.3s and his rival by 8.8s after the morning loop.
Griebel then went on a charge in the afternoon, cutting his deficit to 0.4s in the two gravel stages and then converting that into a 0.7s advantage over the Great Amber street stages. A win for either driver would almost certainly clinch them the title, and with it a drive in an R5 car on the final round of the ERC in Cyprus.
Julius Tannert finished the day third in the last of the ADAC Opel Rallye Junior Team cars, and is only 4.4s behind Ingram. He climbed above impressive Finn Alex Forsström on the day's final stage, with Forsström having sat just a second behind the lead fight in his privateer Opel Adam R2 on only his second ERC start. Miko Niinemäe, returning after his ERC Junior win at home in Estonia, lost 13s to a mistake on the first stage of the day but ended it only 10s of the lead after three fastest times.
Mārtiņš Sesks, who only turns 17 tomorrow, is impressing on his competitive ERC debut, showing everything he's learned in the ERC Junior Experience. He shone particularly on home streets in Liepāja – where his father is mayor – with the quickest time on the first run and second on the other. He's within 15s of the lead, as is Finland's Joonas Tokee, who gradually slipped back from second place during the day. Łukasz Pieniążek sits eighth ahead of Kristóf Klausz, Dominik Brož and Catie Munnings. Murat Bostanci is the best of the non-Junior drivers in ERC3 in ninth place.
Alexey Lukyanuk leads ERC2, but his advantage over Siim Plangi is only 18.4s after a strong performance from the Estonian over the gravel stages. The pair sit second and fourth overall, with Jānis Vorobjovs upholding home honour with third in ERC2 and fifth overall.
Currently fourth and two minutes down on Lukyanuk, it doesn't look like Wojciech Chuchała will be making it six wins out of six in ERC2 this season, but he is poised to wrap up the title tomorrow after nearest rival Giacomo Scattolon was forced to stop after three stages by gearbox problems. Chuchała is on course for more outright points too after climbing to ninth Latvian Māris Neikšāns is fifth in ERC2, just seven seconds ahead of compatriot Martinš Svilis, who ran first on the road on leg one. Lithuania's Vytautas Švedas is seventh with Hungarian ERC regular Tibor Érdi Jr in eighth.
Rallying wonderkid Kalle Rovanperä is competing on an international stage for the first time alongside the ERC on Rally Liepāja and is amazing all with his speed. Still only 15, the son of WRC event winner Harri Rovanperä can't compete for ERC honours but is driving all of the Liepāja stages as part of the Latvian Rally Championship, which he currently leads. A loss of power steering on his ŠKODA Fabia R5 cost him nearly five minutes during the morning, but he was faster than anyone on stages one and four and only a combined 0.9s slower than Ralfs Sirmacis across the day's final three stages.
There are six stages on Sunday, split into two loops of three and totalling 100 kilometres. The action begins with the Vivus.lv stage at 9h30, while the final stage Blue Shock Race begins at 14h30 before the podium ceremony in Liepāja at 16h00.