The inaugural WRC Academy season has produced three different winners from the five of six rounds thus far.
Spaniard Yeray Lemes finished the WRC Rallye de France as the quickest runner in the WRC Academy category, but Stewards slapped the youngster with a five-minute time penalty for a repeat speeding infringement on a liaison section. The win was therefore handed to British stars Alister Fisher/Daniel Barritt, claiming his first WRC Academy win of 2011.
Lemes took an early lead in the Class by winning the opening stage of the event, but his lead didn’t last long. Craig Breen set a scorching SS3 time to jump into the lead, ahead of the WRC Academy Cup leader Egon Kaur. Breen’s points haul was increased when Kaur went off the road on SS3 and was forced to retire from the event.
Breen attacked on the morning and afternoon’s stages, and despite picking up a puncture on SS7, the Irishman claimed six of the opening day’s eight speed tests to finish 24.6sec ahead of Lemes.
Day Two saw Breen pick up where he left off at the end of Day One, but his rally came to a screeching halt on SS10. Breen went off the road, broke a sideshaft and was forced to retire.
Newly promoted to the top spot, Lemes went about opening up a small advantage over Fisher and the rest of the WRC Academy runners. The Spaniard set three fastest stage times on the day’s nine tests that concluded the WRC Academy category.
In Strasbourg, Lemes reached the finish 42.3sec ahead of Fisher. Unfortunately, Lemes’ champagne celebrations were cut short when he was informed of the decision of the event stewards to drop him to third in the final classification, which promoted Fisher to first and Spaniard Jose Suarez to second.
“Of course it’s disappointing to drop to third after receiving a five-minute penalty,” said Lemes. “However, it’s still great to have my second podium in a row and Alastair is a great driver so I am very happy for him.”
Fisher and Suarez were embroiled in a tussle for second position, but Fisher was relieved that Suarez suffered a gearbox problem on SS11 to slow his pace and thereby allow Fisher breathing space.
Fisher said: “Lemes won the rally on the stages and he did an awesome job. Of course it’s good to win the WRC Academy here in France but let’s hope I can put in the times and win on home ground on Rally GB next month.”
Even though Breen failed to finish the event, he is now only 20 points behind Egon Kaur in the Championship standings.
“I’ve made a hell of a lot of mistakes in my career, but this time Gareth [Roberts, my co-driver] was a wee bit late with the note for a slow left corner,” said Breen. “We went into a bank and broke the driveshaft. That’s why we couldn’t carry on. But we’re not giving up on the title, no way.”
After the two days that made up the WRC Academy event, eight runners reached the finish. Behind Suarez was Sepp Wiegand in fourth with Pirelli Star Driver Molly Taylor scoring a season-best fifth on her least favourite surface. Timo van der Marel completed the top six, Estonian Miko-Ove Niinemae in seventh and Swede Fredrik Ahlin eighth.
German star Christian Riedemann retired on SS13 with broken suspension, Brendan Reeves retiring from fourth with a broken clutch on the penultimate stage, Jan Cerny crashed out on SS10, with Sergey Karyakin and Andrea Crugnola both out on SS12.
South African Ashley Haigh-Smith’s WRC Academy debut ended abruptly after the Cape Town-based rally driver and British co-driver James Aldridge crashed heavily in SS2. Unfamiliar on asphalt stages, Haigh-Smith was enjoying his WRC experience in France. He was helicoptered to hospital in Strasbourg, and suffered a broken shoulder and collarbone. Alridge experienced minor injuries and was released from hospital.
The final round of the WRC Academy takes place in Wales for the Wales Rally GB in mid-November.