PZM Rally Poland preview

PZM Rally Poland previewFrom ERC Media [ 22/06/2019 ].
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The all-action FIA European Rally Championship heads to Poland next week (28-30 June) with one point separating title chasers Łukasz Habaj, the home hero, and ERC1 Junior pacesetter Chris Ingram.

What: FIA European Rally Championship round 4 of 8*
When: 28-30 June 2019
Where: Mikołajki, Poland
Stages: 15
Distance: 201.42 kilometres
Surface: Gravel

Recent winners:
2018: Nikolay Gryazin/Yaroslav Fedorov (ŠKODA Fabia R5)
2017: Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)*
2016: Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jæger (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)*
2015: Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)* 2014: Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)*
*WRC event


The all-action FIA European Rally Championship heads to Poland next week (28-30 June) with one point separating title chasers ŁukaszHabaj, the home hero, and ERC1 Junior pacesetter Chris Ingram.

And with PZM 76th Rally Poland edition number 50 to count for ERC points, it's fitting that not only is the championship battle tightly poised, the event's appeal has attracted 102 entrants, the highest number since 1975, with 24 top-of-the-range R5 cars registered for the international section alone.

As well as counting for the ERC, the rally forms a Polish championship double-header, with points awarded on both days. It's resulted in a strong turnout by home-grown drivers, including a trio of promising youngsters: Miko Marczyk, the RMSP leader, and R5 category newcomers Marcin Słobodzian and Kacper Wrȯblewski. Tomasz Kasperczyk, second to Marczyk in the RMSP points, is also firmly in contention.

ERC Junior has 21 rising stars bidding to build experience and establish reputations. A full ERC Junior preview will be issued on Monday 24 June. Meanwhile, Polish driver Dariusz Poloński will be a contender for victory in the new-for-2019 Abarth Rally Cup with competitors also eligible for ERC2 points.

Organisers have worked hard to deliver a compact route of just 659 kilometres by reducing the length of the liaison sections between stages. There are 15 stages in total beginning with the first of three runs of the purpose-built Mikołajki Arena stage, which drivers tackle in pairs, on Friday evening (28 June). Saturday's itinerary features four stages run twice. On Sunday, there will be twin visits to three stages with the Mikołajki Max stage starting in the arena this year rather than finishing in it, as was the case in 2018. The event starts and finishes in Mikołajki's Main Square.

Rally Poland in 100 words

One of the world's oldest rallies returned to the ERC roster in 2018 after a five-year break as Rally Poland replaced Rally Rzeszow as the country's round of the European championship for its 75th edition. First run in 1921, Rally Poland's home since 2005 has been Mikołajki in the picturesque Masurian lake district, a three-hour drive north from the capital Warsaw, where high-speed all-gravel stages are commonplace. And it was in Mikołajki where Kajetan Kajetanowicz first emerged as a major force in the ERC, taking the event win in 2013 prior to beginning his record-breaking title treble sequence in 2015.

What's new for 2019?

A reduction in the length of the liaison sections has meant for a compact route of 659 kilometres. The Mikołajki Max stage, used twice on leg two, starts in the arena this year rather than finishing in it, as was the case in 2018. Having run in early autumn last year, the event gets a fan-friendly summer date in 2019.

Changes to the ERC include the renaming of the ERC Junior categories: ERC Junior Under 28 becomes ERC1 Junior, ERC Junior U27 becomes ERC3 Junior with continued support from Pirelli. Meanwhile, R4-K and RGT cars are eligible for ERC2 points, the Abarth Rally Cup will be contested over six ERC rounds, while Rally Hungary joins the calendar for the first time as the deciding round in November.

Talking points

Home hero Łukasz Habaj heads the bulging entry but admits to being torn between bidding for a second ERC win of the season and focusing on preserving his ERC title lead, which stands at one point over ERC1 Junior leader Chris Ingram after three rounds. Ingram took his first international podium in Poland last year with a strong third place.

Alexey Lukyanuk secured his maiden FIA European Rally Championship in Mikołajki last season, despite his high-speed crash on the opening leg. Having landed his first finish of 2019 in Latvia in late May, the Russian will be keen to continue that momentum as he aims to defend his crown.

Miko Marczyk, the Polish championship (RMSP) leader, is bidding to improve on his fifth place overall from 2018, while R5 category newcomers and fellow Polish rising talents, Marcin Słobodzian and Kacper Wrȯblewski will also be eager to impress, as will Tomasz Kasperczyk, second to Marczyk in the RMSP.

Kasperczyk, a former ERC Junior regular, and Marczyk have taken a win apiece in the RMSP this year.

ACCR Czech Rally Team's Filip Mareš returns to Poland - where he made his first start on gravel in an R5 car - on a high following his breakthrough Czech championship victory recently.

Double ERC Junior champion and fourth seed Marijan Griebel is a Rally Poland newcomer. The German will be hoping for change of fortune after a luckless start to his season.

Other event newcomers include ERC1 Junior contenders Mattias Adielsson and Hiroki Arai, plus Lithuanian talent Vaidotas Žala, who was rapid on his ERC debut in Latvia last month.

Albert von Thurn und Taxis is also new to the high-speed stages in Masuria after a back injury kept him on the sidelines in 2018. The German will be armed with a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, which is the car of choice for multiple Hungarian champion, MOL Racing Team's Norbert Herczig.

With a strong pedigree in production-based machinery, Lithuania's Vytautas Švedas is set to make his first ERC start in a Polo, which he recently acquired.

After missing the last two ERC rounds, Aloísio Monteiro returns to partner ERC3 Junior Pedro Antunes in the two-strong FPAK Portugal Team ERC line-up. Like Monteiro, Brazilian Paulo Nobre will rely on ŠKODA Fabia R5 power.

Having co-driven Kajetan Kajetanowicz to a record three consecutive European championship titles, Jarek Baran is set for his first ERC start since 2017 when he links up with former world championship regular turned cross-country star Aron Domżała. It will be their second event together after they finished second on a practice event in Lithuania earlier this month with Toni Gardemeister's TGS Worldwide team.

In a late change to the entry, Mikko Lukka will take over from Antti Linnaketo as Jari Huttunen's co-driver as Huttunen returns for a second crack at winning Rally Poland having come within 8.3s in 2018.

Juan Carlos Alonso is back to fight for ERC2 points and will face opposition from Zelindo Melegari, Kuwaiti Mshari Althefiri - second on his ERC2 debut in Latvia - and Russian Dmitry Fefanov.

Abarth Rally Cup contenders Dariusz Poloński and Andrea Nucita will also chase ERC2 points.

As on Rally Liepāja, the popularity of the ERC3 category is once again demonstrated with a 19-strong entry, including 16 in the Pirelli-supported ERC3 Junior division.

Florian Bernardi will make his gravel debut bidding for his second ERC3 win of 2019 following his Rally Islas Canarias triumph last month.

Like Bernardi, American ex-sportscar racer Sean Johnston - who made his ERC debut in Poland last September - and Pole Tomasz Zbroja aren't eligible for ERC3 Junior points.

But of the 16 that are, Rally Team Spain's Efrén Llarena heads the category from Sindre Furuseth and FPAK Portugal Team ERC's Pedro Antunes.

Llarena came close to winning the class in Poland last September, just losing out in a thrilling battle with Tom Kristensson, now a contender in the Junior world championship.

Estonian Ken Torn, who won on his ERC3 Junior debut on Rally Liepāja last month in a Ford Fiesta R2T, and Norwegian Steve Røkland will be in the thick of the victory battle, with Røkland finishing third behind Torn and Furuseth in Latvia. A full ERC Junior preview highlighting all the contenders will be issued separately.

Expert views

Łukasz Habaj (Poland) Sports Racing Technologies ŠKODA Fabia R5: "I would like to continue the success story of other Poles who have won Rally Poland, but I need to focus on the championship standings at the same time. This is my ultimate goal - to stay on the top of the leaderboard until the end of the ERC season. Winning this event is a dream to me and I think I am able to achieve it. My plan is to drive fast and show consistent pace right from the beginning of the event. However, I will not go out on a limb. We want to be in the game for the victory, because it seems to be a pretty realistic goal. Nevertheless, I won't even try to judge our chances as a percentage."

Krzysztof Hołowczyc (Poland) Three-time winner, former ERC champion: "The Masurian gravel roads are literally magic. You will not find this magic anywhere else. The stages are very fast, yet pretty safe, as they run mostly through open areas. Experienced drivers claim that this is very nice rally and its headquarters in Mikołajki is an invaluable asset."

Jari Huttunen (Finland) Hyundai Motorsport N Hyundai i20 R5: "It's a really nice rally with fast roads. I want to win after last year, but I know it will be difficult to do so because the competition is high.I enjoy driving the Hyundai i20 R5, especially on Rally Poland where the speed and performance of the car is strong. It is my job to show this but, as with every rally, I start with the aim to win and I will do my best to do so. I am also grateful to Hyundai Motorsport for giving me this extra opportunity to get some seat time on a high-speed gravel rally."

Elias Lundberg (Sweden) ADAC Opel Rallye Junior Team Opel ADAM R2: "After a tough first half of the season we are hoping for a more trouble-free second half. Because this is what it takes to be successful in this highly competitive championship. Little problems, little mistakes, high speed - that's the simple key, otherwise you won't win anything in the FIA ERC3 Junior Championship. We have no previous experience from Poland so we will try to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible together with our ADAC Opel Rallye Junior Team and hopefully the sandy stages in Poland will suit us."

Miko Marczyk (Poland) ŠKODA Polska Motorsport ŠKODA Fabia R5: "Of course, the priority is the Polish championship and with double points on Rally Poland it's really important to be at the finish and be in the game. But I don't want to think a lot about the points. I would like to have fun and be the best version of me as a driver that I can.Rally Poland last year was only my second event on gravel and I've not driven on gravel since then. The competition in the ERC is really high, but I hope I can use my knowledge and experience of last year to be a little more competitive and fight closer with the ERC guys. But I also need to stay calm, drive at my pace and not be over-pushing from the start."

Head to head: Furuseth v Røkland Following their exciting battle for second in class on Rally Liepāja, Norwegians Sindre Furuseth and Steve Røkland will continue their pursuit of success in the Pirelli-supported FIA ERC3 Junior Championship on PZM 76th Rally Poland. Both are newcomers to the Mikołajki event, but with high-speed gravel stages very much their natural habitat, Furuseth and Røkland have what it takes to bid for the category win.

Five facts:

1: Run for the first time in 1921 from the capital Warsaw over a 576-kilometre route to Białowieza, Rally Poland turned 75 in 2018, making it the second oldest rally in the world behind Rallye Monte-Carlo.

2: A founding round of the world championship in 1973 when current FIA President Jean Todt co-drove Achim Warmbold to victory on what was then a Tarmac event, Rally Poland's ERC links date back to 1960 when German pair Walter Schock-Moll and Rolf Moll triumphed in a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE.

3: Mikołajki in the picturesque Masurian lake district has been Rally Poland's base since 2005, which marked the event's switch from asphalt to gravel stages.

4: A three-hour drive north of Warsaw, Mikołajki is home to the gigantic Hotel Gołębiewski, which doubles as event HQ and has grounds large enough to accommodate the rally's service park and superspecial stage, the Mikołajki Arena.

5: Pole Sobiesław Zasada, who became outright ERC champion in 1971 after taking two category titles in the 1960s, is the most successful driver in Rally Poland history with four wins.