Callum Devine was Ireland’s top finisher on the European Rally Championship’s latest round, the testing Rally Fafe Montelongo. Changeable conditions made tyre choice a crucial element of the two-day rally but on many occasions, even the sensible choice of rubber was defied by the weather around Braga.
Ireland’s remaining representatives: Craig Breen and Paul Nagle; Pauric Duffy and Jeff Case; and Oliver Solberg’s co-driver Aaron Johnston finished 18th, 22nd, and 26th respectively.
Callum Devine and James Fulton (Ninth overall, fifth ERC 1 Junior)
After a difficult start to his ERC campaign, Devine finally got some time to settle into his Hyundai i20 R5 as he finished a rally for the first time in seven months.
The Motorsport Ireland driver had one goal ahead of the ERC’s third round: regain some confidence to start improving his times to the potential he regularly showed last year.
The everchanging, greasy surfaces on the Portuguese stages made it a constant battle for every driver to find any confidence over the weekend. A steady start by Devine and Fulton was rewarded with a top ten position after the rally’s opening day.
Devine was able to build his speed across Sunday’s nine stages and finally brought the PCRS-prepared car home to ninth overall, three minutes behind rally winner and championship leader Alexey Lukyanuk.
Devine and Fulton’s progress on Sunday was hindered when fuel pressure problems set in on the day’s second stage. It dropped them behind Spain’s Surhayen Pernia and out of a potential battle with Erik Cais who occupied eighth position.
The pair’s service crew was able to fix the issue caused by a broken wire on the fuel pump and Devine moved back ahead of his Spanish rival over the next three stages.
“It has definitely been a new one [event] for us,” said Devine at the end of the final stage. “The weather has been pretty crazy.
“We have got some miles and completed the first rally for us in the ERC so we are happy to get to the end.”
Craig Breen and Paul Nagle (18th overall)
Driving on a high after their recent Hyundai WRC announcement, Breen and Nagle’s rally-winning challenge came to a tough end on Stage 8, Anjos.
Finding good performance from the MRF tyres on Portugal’s asphalt roads, the Hyundai crew were sitting in second after the first six stages. It was really looking like MRF’s first rally challenge of the season.
However, an oil spill from a national car put Breen’s i20 R5 into a slide on a right-hander on Saturday’s penultimate stage. Breen’s best efforts to avoid an accident wasn’t enough to stop the car clipping its rear-left wheel on a roadside bank.
Breen and Nagle finished the stage on three wheels which cost them a fight for their first ERC win of the season.
Their credentials were shown on Sunday in an altogether different fashion, though, as they returned to the stages to test MRF’s tyre compounds. The crew’s professional approach is undeniable and with barely a weekend without a rally over the next two months, it is set to be one of the most important periods in Breen’s career so far.
“It’s a typical way to finish this weekend,” explained Breen after Stage 18. “I bolted on the slicks for that one because it was bone dry on the road section. [It rained during the stage]
“It’s nice to have that speed yesterday, it’s a little reward for the work that has been going on for the past couple of weeks and months. Obviously, we have to be positive about that.
“It was difficult to do anything today because of the conditions. I drove around and learned a little bit so let’s just go forward from here.”
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Pauric Duffy and Jeff Case (22nd overall)
Fafe was Duffy and Case’s second ERC appearance this year after competing on Rally di Roma in July.
Driving another Hyundai ran by PCRS, they finished the challenging 18 stages just outside the top 20. Duffy had been running in 18th but a puncture on Stage 14, halfway through Sunday, cost the final all-Irish crew over two minutes.
“It was very tough but very enjoyable,” said Duffy. “We learned an awful lot.
“I think we were on a better pace overall but it was very challenging.
“It was really well organised, it ran great so fair play to the team here, we were impressed.”
Oliver Solberg and Aaron Johnston (26th overall, sixth ERC 1 Junior)
Omagh’s Aaron Johnston headed into the ERC’s third round alongside Oliver Solberg just a few points shy of the ERC leader, Alexey Lukyanak.
But Rally Fafe Montelongo was to bring an end to their string of top results. After running in the top three for most of Saturday, their Volkwagen Polo R5 began to suffer turbo problems on the last two stages of the opening day.
In total it cost Solberg and Johnston around 16 minutes and any chance of a decent points haul.
They returned to the stages on Sunday to set three fastest times and again showed they have the pace to beat the best in the R5/Rally2 category.
Solberg and Johnston continue their busy schedule as they compete on Rally Italy this weekend, this time in a Skoda Fabia Rally2 evo. It will be their first time in a Skoda since Rally Sweden earlier this year.