|Kopecký and Lukyanuk split by half a second in flat-out Czech contest|
Jan Kopecký leads Alexey Lukyanuk by just half a second in a thrilling battle going into the final day of Barum Czech Rally Zlín, whilst FIA European Rally Championship leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz was unable to complete the opening leg.
Factory ŠKODA Motorsport driver Kopecký, the 2013 European Champion and a four-time winner of his home round, led from the popular street stage in Zlín on Friday night but has been pushed hard by rapid Russian Lukyanuk, who is driving his regular Ford Fiesta R5, prepared by local team H-Racing.
Lukyanuk broke Kopecký’s streak of stage wins on SS5 Semetin, only to then take a trip off the road on the subsequent test. But posting the fastest time on SS7 (the second run of Košiky, the event’s longest stage at 22.22 kilometres) reduced his deficit from nine to 2.1 seconds, and he was then quickest once more on Hošťálková 2 to snatch the lead.
Kopecký responded however on the second pass of Semetin to finish the opening leg on top in his MICHELIN-equipped ŠKODA Fabia R5, albeit with only half a second in hand over Lukyanuk. Speaking about the pace of the battle, Kopecký said: “I have never been driving so fast on this rally. It’s crazy, unbelievable. I have to say thanks to this car because it’s amazing.”
Lukyanuk, driving on Pirelli tyres, has a great opportunity to reduce Kajetanowicz’s advantage in the standings after the Polish star was forced to stop out of third place on the road section that followed SS4 by an engine failure. His LOTOS Rally Team is set to have the problem rectified in time for Kajetanowicz to restart tomorrow in an attempt to salvage some leg points. However, if Lukyanuk remains in the fight at the front until the end, the title race will move on to next month’s Rally Liepāja in Latvia.
The pace of Kopecký and Lukyanuk has left the rest of the field trailing in their wake. French asphalt ace Bryan Bouffier, making his third appearance of the ERC season in the local Gemini Clinic Rally Team’s Citroën DS3 R5 is one minute down on the leaders. He was closely-matched throughout the day with Czech circuit racer Tomáš Kostka, who is aiming to repeat his podiums on the event from 2012 and 2014 in a Rufa Sport-entered Fabia R5. He is 7.9s behind Bouffier overnight.
Czech drivers in Fabia R5s dominate the rest of the top 10, with two of them trading places on the day’s final stage when regular ERC competitor Jaromír Tarabus moved ahead of ERC Junior graduate Jan Cerný, who only upgraded to his new model earlier this month. German championship leader Fabian Kreim had a cautious start to his first ERC event, but the ŠKODA Motorsport-supported 23-year-old showed improved speed in the afternoon as he climbed to seventh. Pavel Valoušek fell from fifth to eighth when a stone in the road caused a flat tyre on his Fabia but ended the day as the closest man to Kopecký and Lukyanuk over the final two tests.
Ninth is last year’s ERC2 runner-up Vojtěch Štajf in the Fabia R5 he is campaigning in the Czech championship this year, 1.3s ahead of Martin Vlček, who is driving Jaroslav Orsák’s Fiesta R5 that first ran in the Azores in June.
Ralfs Sirmacis has produced top-five stage times in his first asphalt event in the Sports Racing Technologies Fabia R5 that he took to victories on the Acropolis Rally and Rally Estonia, but the 22-year-old Latvian lost over two minutes to a puncture on SS6 and thanked his team for avoiding a time penalty when they had to change the gearbox during the subsequent service halt. He is 14th, behind Belgian Cédric Cherain and ahead of ERC stalwart Antonín Tlusťák, local veteran Roman Odložilík and reigning Polish champion Łukasz Habaj, who suffered a number of problems on his Fiesta R5. Dávid Botka is 19th after a couple of big moments, including a puncture on the day’s first test. Dutchman Hermen Kobus crashed out of a top-10 position on the morning’s second stage.
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