Mārtiṇš Sesks charged to his second victory in the FIA European Rally Championship after he fended off and then pulled clear of title leader Hayden Paddon to win ORLEN 79th Rally Poland on Sunday (May 21).
With Renars Francis co-driving his Team MRF Tyres-entered Škoda Fabia RS Rally2, Sesks completed Saturday’s opening leg 8.2s ahead of Paddon.
Although Sesks initially appeared to be on the defensive when his BRC Racing Team rival won Sunday’s opening test to narrow the gap to 7.4s, it wasn’t long before the 23-year-old Latvian sprinted clear to win ahead of Paddon by 39.6s.
“It feels really special, doing it at home is one story in front of a home crowd, but doing it here in Poland is completely different, it shows the car, the team, the tyres, we’re all ready to fight,” said Sesks, who moves into second position in the provisional standings, 37 points behind early pacesetter Paddon. “It feels so good to be driving for such a good team with such a good car. It’s a pleasure and to be able to perform at such a high level it’s really good. Everyone wants to make a statement but in our minds we want to keep our heads down and just do our work.”
Paddon’s high-paced endeavour on SS9 came at a cost as he completed the stage with a damaged front-right tyre, which would have a major bearing on the outcome of the victory fight. With only one spare Pirelli on board his Hyundai i20 N Rally2, Paddon had to make a tough decision.
“We either kept pushing like we were doing but then you risk another puncture and you retire,” he said. “When you’re thinking about the championship and the points on offer it’s about playing the smart game and that’s the decision we had to make.”
After setting a succession of top three stage times, Michelin-equipped Miko Marczyk completed the podium on his home round of the ERC having won the event last year.
“I am very happy because probably our pace was better than last year when we won the rally,” said the Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 driver. “If someone told me before the race I would finish between Hayden Paddon and Mads Østberg I would say for sure it’s perfect. The best guy won the rally.”
Josh McErlean (Hyundai i20 N Rally2) started Sunday’s action 1.5sec ahead of Mads Østberg in the battle for fourth, only for a high-speed spin 1.6km from the start of SS13 to drop him to seventh, poor reward following a strong performance from the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver. Østberg won the Power Stage on his way to finishing fourth in his MRF Tyres Dealer Team Citroën C3 Rally2.
Overnight set-up changes designed to stop Mikko Heikkilä having to “fight with the car” transformed the Finnish champion’s prospects as he moved up from eighth at the start of the day to fifth in the overall ranking aboard his Michelin-equipped Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo.
Mathieu Franceschi completed the top six after his cautious approach to Sunday afternoon’s stages paid dividends for the young French driver, who marked his 24th birthday by scoring his first Power Stage points in fourth in another Michelin-shod Fabia Rally2 Evo.
Simone Tempestini followed McErlean home in eighth, while Erik Cais finished in a confidence-boosting ninth followed by European champion Efrén Llarena.
Filip Mareš scored ERC points for the second event running in 11th having lost more than 40s rolling on Saturday morning. Dennis Rådström finished 12th on his first ERC event aboard a Rally2 car with his GN Motorsport team-mate Pontus Tidemand placing 13th after a spin and reverse on SS14. Grzegorz Grzyb was next up in 14th closely followed by Simone Campedelli who hit back from going off into a field on SS14. British champion Osian Pryce placed 16th on his ERC debut.
Andrea Mabellini was eighth when he went off the road into haybales on SS13 and rolled. He eventually regained the road but retired shortly afterwards. The Italian had never driven on high-speed gravel stages in a Rally2 car making his late exit tough to take.
Jon Armstrong won the FIA ERC3 category in a Ford Fiesta Rally3 with Ola Nore taking spot in FIA ERC4 driving a Renault Clio Rally4. The Norwegian also won the FIA Junior ERC category, which attracted an impressive 16-car entry for the opening round of the championship’s 10th season and the first with Hankook as the official tyre supplier.
The ERC’s three-event tour of high-speed gravel events continues next month when Tet Rally Liepāja hosts the fourth round of the ERC season from June 16-18.