PREVIEW: FIA ERC’s Azores Airlines Rallye

One of the most spectacular events on the international calendar, the Azores Airlines Rallye, opens the 2018 FIA European Rally Championship (ERC) season from 22-24 March. The material and information links below have been prepared to assist your reporting of the event on São Miguel in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.

60: Record-breaking entry of 60 cars
35: A total of 35 top-of-the-range R5 cars will be in action, including 12 in ERC Junior Under 28
55: Of the 60 entrants, 55 are registered for ERC points with 23 lining up in ERC Junior
15: This year’s event features 15 stages over a competitive distance of 207.30km
2: Number of visits to the iconic Sete Cidades stage.

*When it comes to Azores Airlines Rallye success look no further than Fernando Peres, the event’s record-holding seven-time winner.
*While Ricardo Moura has nine Azorean championship titles to his name, his Azores Rallye triumph in 2016 was his first on his home round of the ERC.
*Other winners include WRC stars past and present, such as Kris Meeke, Andreas Mikkelsen, Juha Kankkunen, Markko Märtin and Bruno Thiry.
*The Azores archipelago is located roughly equidistant between Lisbon and New York and is made up of nine islands. The fertile soil is perfect for a variety of crops and grazing for livestock.

ERC Juniors past and present will be in the thick of the battle for glory when the 2018 FIA European Rally Championship season begins on the Azores Airlines Rallye next week (22-24 March).

Marijan Griebel graduates to the championship’s top tier after winning the ERC Junior Under 28 title in 2017, while Chris Ingram steps up to ERC Junior U28 after claiming ERC Junior U27 success last season. Ingram will be one of 12 drivers contesting ERC Junior U28, the class for young stars in R5 cars, while ERC Junior U27 for R2 cars on Pirelli tyres has attracted 11 entrants for the Mid-Atlantic gravel showpiece, one of the most spectacular events on the international calendar.

ERC Junior U27 contenders include Dominik Brož, Tom Kristensson and Efrén Llarena, who are competing with the support of the Czech (ACCR), German (ADAC) and Spanish (RFEDA) motorsport federations/automobile associations. Points scored by the trio will count towards the ERC Nations’ Cup, a new initiative for 2018 that promotes participation in the European championship by these organisations and, in turn, provides an extra opportunity for rising talents to progress from national to international level.

Other changes for 2018 include reducing the number of scoring rounds in ERC2 from six to four – which has resulted in double the number of all-season campaigners – a requirement for drivers to be ERC registered in order to score overall points and a revamp to the ERC Ladies’ Trophy points system. Rather than recognise the achievements of women when competing against other women drivers, to promote gender equality, drivers will score points based on where they appear in the final two or four-wheel-drive order.

ERC Junior Under 28: R5 category on the rise:
The ERC Junior Under 28 category continues to go from strength to strength with a flurry of competitor interest for its second season. ŠKODA’s German and Slovak subsidiaries will be supporting Fabian Kreim and Martin Kočirespectively in the category for young stars in R5 cars, while Laurent Pellier steps up from winning the 208 Rally Cup in France to lead PEUGEOT Rally Academy’s challenge. ERC Junior Under 27 champion Chris Ingram gets his first shot in R5 machinery with Toksport. Pierre-Louis Loubet, son of 1989 ERC champion Yves, brings Team OSCARO support to BRC Racing Team where he will pilot a Hyundai i20 R5. Fredrik Åhlin (Sweden) and Frank Tore Larsen (Norway) make up the Scandinavian contingent. Poles Tomasz Kasperczyk and Hubert Ptaszek, Briton Rhys Yates and Azorean Luis Rego will also be in action as will Italian Tamara Molinaro, who graduates from ERC Junior U27 to become the first women driver to mount a season-long ERC campaign in an R5 car. The champion will be offered a one-off prize drive in a World Rally Car on a European round of the 2019 WRC season as their prize.

ERC Junior Under 27: Next generation aim for the top:
Eleven drivers aiming for the top will be in the thick of the battle for Pirelli-equipped ERC Junior U27 success on the Azores Airlines Rallye. Tom Kristensson and Mārtiņš Sesks have been charged with chasing a fourth consecutive title for the ADAC Opel Rallye Junior Team. Kristensson gets his chance after winning the ADAC Opel Rallye Cup in Germany last season, while Sesks is a graduate of the ERC Junior Experience training programme. Their rivals will include ACCR Czech Team’s Dominik Brož, Rally Team Spain’s Efrén Llarena, Saintéloc Junior Team pair Catie Munnings andSimon Wagner, Finnish R2 champion Miika Hokkanen, Denmark’s ERC rookie Simon Vallentin and circuit racer turned rally driver Mattia Vita. Pedro Antunes and Diogo Gago will carry Portuguese hopes in their PEUGEOT 208 R2s. All ERC Junior Under 27 drivers will be enrolled onto the ERC Junior Experience training programme.

And in other news…
*Last year’s Azores winner and ERC runner-up Bruno Magalhães is embarking on what the Portuguese hopes will be a full-season campaign when his opposition will include the ever-spectacular Russian Alexey Lukyanuk and PEUGEOT Deutschland-supported Marijan Griebel. While Magalhães and Lukyanuk have gravel knowledge of their ŠKODA Fabia R5 and Ford Fiesta R5 respectively, Griebel’s first taste of driving his 208 T16 on loose surfaces will be during testing on Monday.

*Current and former national champions competing in the Azores include Łukasz Habaj (Poland), Norbert Herczig(Hungary), Ricardo Moura (Azores), Hermann Neubauer (Austria) and Bernardo Sousa and Carlos Vieira (both Portugal). Sousa, the Azores winner in 2014, has competed only sporadically in recent seasons and will take over the Play / Autoaçoreana Racing Citroën DS3 R5 vacated by brothers Ruben and Estevão Rodrigues for professional reasons.

*Orhan Avcioglu graduates to the ERC after winning the FIA Balkan Rally Trophy in 2017. He will form part Toksport’s three-car Azores entry.

*Brazil’s Paulo Nobre is returning to international competition after successfully masterminding the rise of Palmeiras in his role as club president. Nobre, a regular in the WRC and in cross-country rallying in the past, is returning to his old team Motorsport Italia.

*Albert von Thurn und Taxis will embark on his second ERC season after joining Raimund Baumschlager’s BRR operation, while Dávid Botka is a former ERC2 champion.

*Other drivers competing on the ERC season-opener include Giacomo Costenaro, Jarosław Koltun and Aloísio Monteiro, who has been receiving driving tips from Bruno Magalhães as he steps up to R5 level.

*Emma Falcón and Catie Munnings will battle Tamara Molinaro for ERC Ladies’ Trophy honours.

Showroom showdown: New rules result in expanded ERC2 interest:
With the number of scoring rounds reduced from six to four in response to competitor feedback, the amount of drivers planning season-long campaigns in ERC2 – the category for standard production cars – has doubled. Tibor Érdi Jr is returning to defend his title with last year’s runner-up Zelindo Melegari and third-placed Sergei Remennik also in action. Argentine Juan Carlos Alonso returns following a one-year absence, while Luis Pimentel is also returning after a back injury curtailed his 2017 endeavours. Newcomer Tarik Manderes Okur from Turkey completes the list.