Aigner holds narrow lead following dramatic start to Valais ERC finale

Andreas Aigner and co-driver Barbara Watzl lead Rallye International du Valais after an action-packed start to the FIA European Rally Championship season-finale in Switzerland today.

Driving a Subaru Impreza R4 STI on Yokohama tyres, they are 3.7s ahead of Esapekka Lappi and Janne Ferm – in a Michelin-shod ŠKODA Fabia Super 2000 – after Thursday’s opening leg, which consisted of three stages based around the town of Sion.

Craig Breen, who can move into second place in the final ERC drivers’ standings if he scores 27 points or more in Valais, had been on top after two stages but a two-minute time penalty for an early check-in prior to stage three means he languishes in 16th position and 1m55.2s off the pace heading into Friday’s second leg. His Peugeot Rally Academy team-mate Jérémi Ancian was penalised by three minutes for a similar offence. As a result the Frenchman is 28th overall and 2m55.4s behind leader Aigner.

Breen and Ancian’s demotion is in stark contrast to the euphoric scenes at the finish of stage one when they shared the joint-fastest time in their 207 Super 2000s. It got better for Breen when he went fastest outright on the next test as Ancian lost vital seconds when his vision was temporarily obscured by low-lying sun. Despite a hesitant run on Thursday’s closing stage through the grounds of the army barracks in Sion, Breen appeared to hold an advantage of 0.2s over Ancian only for the penalties to be applied to their end-of-day totals.

“The first stage was slippery, the second stage I settled into a good rhythm but I was a bit cautious on the last stage because it was easy to take a wheel off in there,” said Breen, who, like Ancian, ran out of order on stages two and three after being delayed in traffic on a road section. “But my speed has been good enough to fight for victory and we will continue the fight tomorrow.”

As well as leading overall, Aigner tops the ERC Production Car Cup, while Lappi’s performance follows on from his victory on China Rally Longyou last weekend. “It’s been a very good day with no problems,” said Aigner. “The biggest problem was starting the second stage on time because there were a lot of traffic and road works. The last stage was not easy because there was mud from the shakedown. But there were a lot of fans so that was nice.”

Olivier Burri is third overnight and the top Swiss driver but is far from happy with the set-up of his Ford Fiesta RRC, which he’s driving in competition for the first time on the back of 10 kilometres of pre-event running. Russian teenager Vasily Gryazin is a strong fourth with Swiss champion Grégoire Hotz fifth, Sébastien Carron sixth and Nicolas Althaus seventh.

Jaroslav Orsák is back on ERC duty and eighth overnight after missing the last two rounds through injury. The Czech struggled through the opening leg running on hard-compound tyres in the damp and slippery conditions that featured on all three stages. Competing in a Fabia S2000 for the first time in three years, Orsák had to complete stage three with no working handbrake but still managed to set the second quickest time.

GPD Mit Metal Racing Team-mate Antonín Tlusťák lost time with a persistent misfire, which struck on the opening run. He’s 12th overall. Behind Aigner in the battle for ERC Production Car Cup honours, Florian Gonon is second in class in a similar Subaru Impreza R4 STI with Robert Consani next up for Team Renault Sport Technologies.

Sylvain Michel heads the ERC 2WD Championship section in his Citroën DS3 R3T followed by Xavier Tornay and Mike Coppens. Peugeot Rally Academy’s Stéphane Lefebvre is the leading R2 class contender, while Ekaterina Stratieva heads the FIA ERC Ladies’ Trophy classification. Only one of the 68 starters, Honda Civic driver Xavier Craviolini, failed to make it through Thursday’s trio of stages.

Leg two features seven stages over a competitive distance of 110.74 kilometres and begins with the 26.58 kilometres of Vercorin at 09:45hrs local time on Friday.

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