ERC Junior Pepe López keeps Alexey Lukyanuk in check

Reining ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk ended the first leg of the FIA’s European Rally Championship Rally Islas Canarias in the lead – but he was beaten more than once by a pair of ERC1 Junior stars in R5 cars that kept his advantage in check.

Pepe López had already won the Qualifying Stage and continued his strong form by winning Valsequillo, 2.2s faster than fellow ERC1 Junior competitor Pierre-Louis Loubet. In a field full of experienced Spanish drivers including third-placed Iván Ares, Rally Team Spain's José Suárez and local legend Luis Monzón, it was an impressive start by the pair.

Lukyanuk scored his first stage win on San Mateo, taking second from Loubet and closing in on López. But there was plenty of shuffling around; Ares would temporarily dip down to ninth place after SS2, only to regain his podium spot one stage later. MOL Racing Team’s Norbert Herczig meanwhile put himself into the thick of a massive podium position battle, moving up to fourth place aboard his Volkswagen Polo R5.

The biggest challenge was yet to come, with the third stage of the rally, Tejeda, the longest of the weekend at 24.1 kilometres. That meant plenty of shake-up in the order, as the long twisty roads of Gran Canaria took their toll on brakes and tyre life.

Lukyanuk swooped into the lead, taking 4.7s out of López. Team OSCARO driver Loubet had also been in the mix as a potential victory contender but his hopes ended on Tejeda, a front-right tyre failing under the intense pressure of the abrasive road surface. He lost 38.5s and fell to eighth overall, though he retained an all-important ERC1 Junior podium position.

Chris Ingram is up to third!
Chris Ingram is up to third!

The two ERC1 Junior graduates faced contrasting fortunes on Tejeda. The 2017 champion Marijan Griebel’s confidence was building, allowing him to shoot up from seventh to fourth place in one stage. It partially came at the expense of former Peugeot Rally Academy driver Suárez, who faced the same fate as Loubet and fell from fifth to P15.

After the crews regrouped at midday service, the ERC1 Juniors were once again fastest out of the blocks. López and Loubet tied for fastest time on the afternoon re-run of Valsequillo, cutting Lukyanuk’s lead down to only 1.7s. Griebel was also thriving after switching to a harder tyre compound, going third fastest to take third place away from Hyundai Motor España’s lead driver, Ares.

While Lukyanuk edged López by only 0.4s for the stage win on SS5, the real star of San Mateo’s afternoon pass was Chris Ingram. The ERC1 Junior points leader was only 1.3s off the pace, which catapulted him straight to the podium from fifth place, passing Griebel and Ares.

Lukyanuk pushed to increase his advantage on the re-run of Tejeda and gained 4.2s over López. Ares, meanwhile, was falling further backwards, as he lost fifth to Herczig with a time 18.8s off pacesetter Lukyanuk’s effort. Despite being one of the most experienced drivers on Gran Canaria, local expert Monzón struggled again on Tejeda and dropped to P12, allowing Niki Mayr-Melnhof to take ninth and allowing a recovering Suárez back into the points.

There was a final riposte from López on the streets of Las Palmas. Across two passes of a 1.44-kilometre superspeical, the Citroën Rally Team driver took 2.5s out of rally leader Lukyanuk, ending the day 3.8s behind. The lead battle is very much still on heading into leg two.

Herczig and Ares were back at it over fifth in Las Palmas too, with the Spaniard grabbing the place on the final stage of the day by taking 3.8s out of Herczig across the two SuperSpecials. Plenty of tyres and rims were scuffed on kerbs as drivers chased tenths of a second, the most visually apparent of which was to Lars Stugemo’s Printsport-run Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.

Day two begins early Saturday morning…