Rally Poland proved to be a tricky European Rally Championship opener for Ireland’s leading Rally2 crews. Craig Breen and Paul Nagle had been in the podium hunt before succumbing to suspension damage when their Hyundai i20 R5 hit an embedded rock on Saturday’s penultimate stage.
Breen was able to return on Sunday under SuperRally regulations to set three fastest stage times, a first with MRF Tyres on gravel.
“We underlined our pace this weekend,” said Breen, “and the development from the team at MRF Tyres.
“To be able to take MRF Tyres’ first stage win on gravel, in just our second gravel rally is an incredible achievement.
“Today [Sunday] we were able to be inside the top three on each stage and grab some points, [even though] it was more about testing the tyres and getting the data we need for the next generation of tyres.
“I am looking forward to Rally Liepaja. We have data from last year as the only gravel rally we did, so it should be interesting to go back.”
Their final day charge will provide some relief after a frustrating Saturday. After a promising trio of stages to start Rally Poland, Breen fell away from the leaders when a tyre came off its rim on Stage 4. Three stages later he was stranded one kilometre from the stage-end with a broken suspension arm.
With just one weekend between ERC’s opening two rounds, Breen and Nagle will be hoping for a problem-free run in Latvia to challenge the leading Rally2 regulars on Rally Liepaja.
Breen’s misfortune left Callum Devine and James Fulton to fly the Irish flag in ERC’s frontrunning pack. After qualifying an impressive fifth-fastest, trouble hit the Motorsport Ireland driver on Rally Poland’s third stage.
A dejected Devine arrived at the stage-end reporting no fifth gear which he knew spelled disaster on Poland’s ultra fast roads. The fact he could continue was a slight silver lining but with a short-ratio gearbox the only replacement option in service, like Breen, Devine’s rally challenge was over before it got started.
Consistent top twenty times allowed Devine and Fulton to climb back up the leaderboard and they narrowly missed out on 13th by 0.3 seconds.
The pair will now be focused on putting the experience gained in Poland to good use on the similarly fast-paced Rally Liepaja.
Rally Poland was also a car breaker for Cathan McCourt’s Rally2 Fiesta and Jason Mitchell’s R5 variant.
McCourt had been enjoying his second gravel rally of the year before a heavy landing after a Stage 7 jump forced him out with just Saturday’s super special remaining. The 2019 Irish Forestry Champion was able to return on Sunday to complete the rest of the rally.
Unfortunately for Mitchell his rally ended twice after incurring damage on Saturday and Sunday morning. It’s a tough start to his ERC campaign after showing promising times in Portugal earlier this year.
Rally3 debutante Jon Armstrong was left the happiest of them all as he claimed victory in the ERC Junior category. He led five M-Sport Poland Ford Fiesta Rally3s to finish an impressive 21st overall; Rally Poland had 42 Rally2 entrants.
Armstrong’s impressive performance was a crucial warm-up for his next Junior WRC outing in Estonia.
“The biggest thing to take away from Poland is that I am happy with how I am preparing for rallies,” explained Armstrong. “My pacenotes are good and we’ve definitely made big improvements there.”
Photos courtesy of FIA ERC