Finnish star Esapekka Lappi has made it two wins from three starts in this year's FIA European Rally Championship with a dominant victory on the Discover Northern Ireland Circuit of Ireland Rally, which finished in Belfast's sun-drenched Titanic Quarter on Saturday evening.
Cheered on by thousands of fans enjoying the Easter weekend break, Lappi led from start to finish and becomes the third different driver from Finland to win the legendary asphalt event. By joining Pentti Airikkala and Juho Hänninen as a Circuit winner, Lappi moves back in front of the ERC title battle after erstwhile leader, Irishman Craig Breen, retired his Peugeot 208T16 on Saturday's opening stage with a sensor problem.
Not only does Lappi, co-driven by compatriot Janne Ferm, top the ERC standings after four rounds, by winning ten of the 18 tarmac stages, he now heads the ERC Asphalt Master classification, a new initiative for 2014 designed to reward the achievements of surface specialists.
While Breen was out of luck on his home round of the ERC, there was plenty of cause for Irish celebration when Josh Moffett and Daniel McKenna won the ERC Production Car and ERC 2WD categories respectively. Chris Ingram had been the leading ERC Junior runner but suffered a heavy crash on stage 13, fortunately without injury. With Ingram out, Jan Černý came through for his second successive victory in the new-for-2014 series, which once again produced some serious competition.
Lappi, who is now a four-time winner in the ERC, began Saturday's leg with an advantage of 12.6s over Breen and all-set for a close fight for victory. But when the Peugeot Rally Academy driver stopped on the Bulls Brook stage, Lappi was left in the clear to take a second Circuit win for his Michelin-equipped Škoda Motorsport team following Hänninen's success for the make in 2012.
“It was quite a crazy weekend, I have to say,” Lappi smiled, “I am proud of yesterday with my speed against the local guys and we kept this performance today. Yesterday was perfect, today was more or less surviving to the finish after Craig stopped and the fight ended. This was my first proper win on tarmac and it's my best win. It's very good for the championship so I am happy.”
Breen, the winner of the previous round in Greece, was clearly frustrated not to have been able to do better on home soil.
“Obviously I am bitterly disappointed to have retired on this event so close to home, especially after Scott [Martin] and I managed to narrow the gap to Lappi from 20 to twelve seconds on Friday,” he said, “That made chasing victory a real possibility. My car had the speed and we had a good fight but things can happen with a new car.”
Behind Lappi, Robert Barrable was on course for the runner-up spot in his Ford Fiesta R5, but an overshoot into a field on the penultimate stage elevated Lappi's German team-mate Sepp Wiegand into second, with Irishman Barrable settling for third. His countryman, Sam Moffett, had been in the mix for a podium only for a fuel pressure issue to force his exit after stage twelve. Moffett, who hopes to make further ERC starts, was fastest of all on Saturday's opening stage in his Fiesta RRC.
Robert Consani collected a season-best fourth in his Pirelli-shod Delta Rally Peugeot 207 S2000 with British privateer Neil Simpson a fine fifth in his ex-Lappi Fabia S2000. ERC 2WD winner Daniel McKenna took sixth with ERC Production Car Cup pacesetter Josh Moffett seventh and ERC Junior victor Jan Černy eighth.
Moffett scored a clear victory, coming home more than seven minutes in front of Robert Woodside, who was making his return to competition after a twelve-year absence. While Woodside lost time on a tough second stage this morning with myriad problems, Moffett pulled clear although he did admit to dropping his pace on the closing three stages when his brake discs warped.
“It's a great result and we're really happy,” the 24-year old Irishman said, “We backed off on the last three stages because of the brakes but it was only a distraction, not a serious problem.”
McKenna was using the Circuit of Ireland Rally to prepare for his upcoming British championship campaign as the Pirelli Star Driver scholarship recipient. But he claimed an impressive debut ERC 2WD win in sixth overall following a faultless display in his Citroën DS3 R3T. ERC Junior winner Černý took second, with Jonathan Greer third and reigning ERC 2WD champion Zoltán Bessenyey fourth in his Honda Civic Type R having completed leg one in sixth position.
“I wasn't comfortable in the car when I tested on Monday, but everything hooked up nicely after the first few corners and everything worked well from there,” McKenna said, “But I never thought I would be on Jukka Korhonen's pace. To be beating him and then holding him off before he had his accident I was delighted. But even today we found some more speed.”
Černý made it back-to-back ERC Junior wins, but not before Ingram had shone in his Renault Twingo. Ingram, the overnight leader, was still in front when he crashed heavily on stage 13, fortunately without injury to either himself or co-driver Gabin Moreau. With Ingram out, Černý steered his Peugeot 208 to victory ahead of impressive ERC Junior newcomer Alex Parpottas. Petter Kristiansen fought back to grab third on the penultimate stage when Stephen Wright overshot a left-hander and suffered a delay selecting reverse gear. Aleks Zawada recovered from a puncture to take fifth with Gino Bux a strong sixth on his first international rally.
“It's good, I'm really happy we are again winning,” Černý said, “Before the rally we really wanted to win here and it happened, but we are sorry for Chris that it ended up like it did for him.”
Ingram's efforts earned him the prestigious Colin McRae ERC Flat Out Trophy, which was presented to him by Kris Meeke.
Final Top 10 (after 18 stages, 230.62 kilometres)
1. Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Škoda Fabia S2000 2h06m15.5s
2. Sepp Wiegand (DEU)/Frank Christian (DEU) Škoda Fabia S2000 +1m50.0s
3. Robert Barrable (IRL)/Stuart Loudon (GBR) Ford Fiesta R5 +1m57.5s
4. Robert Consani (FRA)/Maxime Vilmot (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000 +5m34.0s
5. Neil Simpson (GBR)/Claire Mole (GBR) Škoda Fabia S2000 +6m33.5s
6. Daniel McKenna (IRL)/Arthur Kierans (IRL) Citroën DS3 R3T +10m46.5s
7. Josh Moffett (IRL)/John Rowan (IRL) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX +11m00.6s
8. Jan Černý (CZE)/Pavel Kohout (CZE) Peugeot 208 R2 +12m57.4s
9. Jonathan Greer (GBR)/Kirsty Riddick (GBR) Citroën DS3 R3T +13m50.1s
10. Zoltán Bessenyey (HUN)/Yulianna Nyirfás (HUN) Honda Civic Type R +15m04.1s
FIA ERC Production Car Cup: Josh Moffett (IRL)/John Rowan (IRL) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX
FIA ERC 2WD Championship: Daniel McKenna (IRL)/Arthur Kierans (IRL) Citroën DS3 R3T
ERC Junior Championship: Jan Černý (CZE)/Pavel Kohout (CZE) Peugeot 208 R2
ERC Asphalt Master: Esapekka Lappi (FIN)
Colin McRae ERC Flat Out Trophy: Chris Ingram (GBR)