As some of the of the world’s most talented young talents did battle for the spoils in the inaugural round of the 2012 FIA WRC Academy at the Vodafone Rally de Portugal this weekend, there was sure to be some excitement. Rising to the challenge Alastair Fisher (23) took the victory ahead of Brendan Reeves (23) and Pontus Tidemand (21).
Supported by Ford Racing in Europe and with control tyres from Pirelli, the WRC Academy embarked on some of the most challenging conditions the World Rally Championship (WRC) has seen for decades. Thrown in at the deep end, the WRC Academy crews were faced with an exceptionally difficult first event. Having to cope with persistent heavy rain, thick fog, and treacherously slippery conditions, the quality of the 2012 competitors shone through with nine out of a possible 10 Ford Fiesta R2’s making it to the finish.
Returning to the popular Super Special at the Praça do Império on Thursday afternoon, first blood went to the Australia brother and sister pairing of Reeves and Rhianon Smyth. With just 2.1 seconds separating the top three, asphalt ace Jose Antonio Suárez (21) claimed second with Sweden’s Fredrik Åhlin (22) securing third overall. Privileged with opening the event, Portuguese driver João Silva (24) set the sixth fastest time, in front of this home crowd.
Thursday evening saw the crews embark upon their first real challenge – three back-to-back night stages north of the rally’s base in the Algarve. With three different stage winners over the three tests, the WRC Academy was fast becoming one of the most exciting battles in the field.
Securing the stage win on SS2 followed by two top-five times over the remaining loop, Åhlin leap-frogged Reeves for the lead – just 0.5 seconds ahead going into Day 2. SS3 saw Tidemand prove just what it is that makes him Sweden’s youngest ever national champion when he secured the stage win on his first venture to the Algarve – climbing from 10th to an incredible fourth overall in the standings. Contesting the final 11.1 km of the day, it was Fisher who came out on top to lie just 1.4 seconds adrift of Reeves.
Elsewhere however, there was heartache for John MacCrone (23) as the Scotsman suffered a heavy landing on SS2, damaging the radiator of his Fiesta R2 and was forced to restart under Rally 2. Nevertheless, with less than a minute separating the top six crews going into the second day of competition, the outcome remained impossible to predict.
Day 2, and as the weather played havoc on the stages around the Tavira municipality, organisers were forced to cancel SS7, SS8, SS9 and SS10 for the WRC Academy crews. Despite the treacherous conditions, nine crews made it to service – highlighting the quality of this year’s field given the number of more experienced drivers who fell foul of the conditions.
Having to contend with stages that better resembled Wales Rally GB than the Algarve, rally leader Åhlin was caught out by the tricky conditions on SS5. The Swede went too deep into a second gear left-hander, damaging the wishbone and driveshaft of his Fiesta R2 and having to restart under Rally 2 regulations on the final day of competition.
It was Fisher’s experience which paid dividends. Securing both stage victories, the Northern Irishman was propelled into the lead of the event with over a minute advantage to Reeves in second.
Elsewhere on Day 2, there was heartache for Elfyn Evans (23) – relegated to the back of the field as poor visibility caused him to go off the road on a steep downhill section. Becoming lodged in a ditch and unable to get the car back on the road, the Welshman put his initiative to good use, driving his Fiesta down the bank and building a ‘bridge’ to get back on the stage. Despite losing some 14 minutes, Evans restarted on the last day of competition.
Embarking on the final day of competitive stages, the WRC Academy crews faced three stages through the hills north of Faro. With the top three keen to preserve their hard earned positions over the remaining tests, Åhlin put in a charge to secure the stage win on SS11 and SS13 – minimising yesterday’s upset with another two points.
SS12 went to Reeves, but it was not enough to catch Fisher out in front. Excelling in the difficult conditions, the Northern Irishman’s times were never out of the top five as he flew to victory in the first round of the 2012 FIA WRC Academy Cup. Setting some blistering times in the dry conditions, Reeves claimed second overall with Tidemand excelling – despite incurring a 10 second penalty when a fuel issue saw him leave the last service a minute behind schedule – to claim the final podium position on his first venture to the Portuguese stages.
Returning for his second season in the FIA WRC Academy, Timo Van der Marel (22) brought his Fiesta R2 home in fourth ahead of Suárez who, following an accident in the Spanish Championship last week, had to compete with a new co-driver for the first time. Recovering well, Åhlin and Evans claimed sixth and seventh respectively, ahead of local-boy Silva. Following his heavy impact on Day 1, MacCrone did well to bring his Fiesta R2 to the finish in ninth place.
Elsewhere there was heartache for Chris Duplessis (24). Having been going strongly in fifth, the charismatic American damaged the rear of his Fiesta on SS12. Losing over 20 minutes and despite his best efforts and ingenuity to find a temporary fix, the youngster ran out of time and was regrettably unable to be classified as a finisher in the rally.
Battling through the treacherous conditions, the WRC Academy crews impressed the field on their first event. Next up in the Cup, competitors’ will be eager to excel once more as they contest the notoriously rough stages of the Acropolis Rally.
Alastair Fisher said: “We are very happy to take the first win of the season. We have never seen anything like the stages yesterday but we seemed to cope really well in the conditions and everything seemed to work well.
“We focused on being smooth and consistent and the car has been perfect, even in the rough stages. We drove with a bit too much caution on the first stage today [SS11] and Brendan [Reeves] took 15 seconds out of us, so we made sure we stayed on his pace for the next two stages [SS12 and SS13]. We have worked very hard over the winter so it is nice to get a good solid start to the season and points on the board.”
Brendan Reeves said: “It feels so good to get this result. The conditions have been tough and Alastair [Fisher] hasn’t made it an easy weekend for us. But with two stage wins and second overall we couldn’t be happier.
“We took it a bit easier yesterday in the wet but went for it today. The stages had a lot more grip and we felt very comfortable in the car so we decided to push. We wanted to keep the pressure on Alastair but he drove really well all weekend.
“It was a great rally for us and we couldn’t be on the podium with better people! We have had a lot of support to allow us to be here and it is all thanks to them. We now need to focus on getting more support to keep the momentum going for the rest of the season.”
Pontus Tidemand said: “We had an issue with the fuel pressure this morning so we are lucky to be here. I am happy with our first weekend in the car, it is the first time I have driven the [Ford] Fiesta R2 so it is good to get a strong result and some good points.
“The stages were much nicer today but we are not pushing the car to the limit yet.”
Van der Marel +5:05.0
PROVISIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS AFTER ROUND 1:
Fisher 25pts + 3 stage wins = 28pts
Reeves 18pts + 2 stage wins = 20pts
Tidemand 15pts + 1 stage win = 16pts
Van Der Marel = 12pts
Åhlin 8pts + 3 stage wins = 11pts
Suárez = 10pts
Evans = 6pts
Silva = 4pts
MacCrone = 2pts
Duplessis = DNF
– Credit: M-Sport.