Poland - J-WRC - Finish
Kevin Abbring became the youngest winner of a round of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship when at 20 years and 159 days old he sensationally won the 66th Orlen Platinum Rally Poland in his Dutch KNAF Talent First Team Clio R3.
by Erwin Mombaerts, Abbring fought a magnificently close and exciting battle with J-WRC leader Michal Kosciuszko, and after two and a half days of competition the pair were separated by just 0.1 seconds after 14 of the 18 special stages. The closest finish in J-WRC history beckoned, but three stages from the finish Kosciuszko hit a tree and retired which disappointed Abbring, as he wanted to show the world his true talent by fighting all the way to the finish and beating his rival on home ground.
Abbring predicted that Day 1's stages would suit his Clio R3 which is 100kgs heavier than Kosciuszko's nimble Suzuki and has a lower top speed (170kph compared to 181kph). The young Dutchman set an incredible pace, opening up a 27 second advantage at the end of Day 1 to lead the J-WRC for the first time. Abbring admitted to making a few mistakes on the first loop of Day 2, which, combined with a great performance by his rival, saw Kosciuszko go into a 17 second led. An incredibly close battle continued on the fast Mazurian Lakes District gravel stages, before Kosciuszko stopped and secured Abbring his well deserved maiden win.
The previous youngest winner of a J-WRC round was Franηois Duval who, at 22 years and two months old, won the category on the 2002 Rallye Monte Carlo.
Retirement was bitter disappointment for Kosciuszko, who not only lost a potential home win, but with only one nominated rally remaining his J-WRC title hopes have suffered a huge set-back. The 24-year old drove brilliantly all weekend, despite being in a lot of pain after injuring his right hand during a pre-rally test, when he jarred it on a sticking gear lever. With his Swift in a new blue livery (courtesy of new sponsor Verva, one of the largest oil companies in Eastern Europe), Kosciuszko was very much the local star and whilst he had previously competed on some of the stages, his local knowledge was limited as he lives in Krakow, 600kms away from the rally's host town of Mikolajki in north east Poland.
Kosciuszko wanted to win and score 10 points, but his main aim was to stay ahead of arch rival Martin Prokop, and whilst he said that 2nd and eight points would be enough he attacked on Day 3 and regained the lead. Fastest times on SS14 and 15 put him 1.8 seconds ahead of Abbring, but on SS16 Kosciuszko hit a rock in the middle of the road, which forced the car off the track and into a tree. It took him two minutes to get going again, but the radiator had been damaged and with water pouring out he retired 1km from the end of the stage when the engine stopped.
Martin Prokop arrived in Poland needing to finish in the points, and whilst he was in the pull-away top three, the 26-year old had settled for 3rd, as he was unable to take the extra risks required to keep up with Kosciuszko and Abbring. He was pushing hard, as an overshoot when he braked too late for a hairpin on SS10 testified, but the need to score championship points outweighed the temptation to push too hard. He enjoyed a trouble-free event and looked like he might end the rally 12 points behind Kosciuszko (meaning Kosciuszko could potentially win the title on Rally Finland). Instead, Kosciuszko's demise sees him and Prokop tied on 36 points although Kosciuszko only has Rally Finland remaining and Prokop can score points in Finland and Spain. Aaron Burkart (who did not nominate Rally Poland in his six from eight events) can also still win the title.
Yoann Bonato found himself in a lonely 4th for most of the event. He hit a straw bale on SS4, which removed a section of his Swift's front bodywork, and attacking a deep water splash too hard on SS9 gave him a cold shower, as water jetted in from holes in the bulkhead. Four minutes behind the car in front and a minute and a half in front of the car behind, Bonato had to maintain his concentration on Day 3, and brought the car home unscathed despite overshooting a junction on SS15 when he found the overnight rain had made a braking area very muddy.
He had long-since settled for 4th, before Kosciuszko's retirement moved him up to 3rd allowing him to equal his best J-WRC finish (having finished 3rd in Corsica, 2007).
Hans Weijs Jnr had not driven his C2 since last month's Rally d'Italia Sardegna and with the wrong set-up he immediately struggled with a lack of grip; even spinning the front wheels in sixth gear on the opening loop of stages.
The Dutch KNAF Talent First Team did a great job to improve the car, and Weijs' pace increased until he hit a rock in the middle of the road on SS11, breaking a wheel, collecting a puncture and damaging the steering and suspension. He replaced the steering arm on the following road section, but lost time on SS12 and 13 as the front wheels were out of alignment. The team made further set-up changes for Day 3, but heavy overnight rain completely changed the conditions and the car didn't handle well on the slippery and muddy roads. All he could do was keep the car on the road and aim for a finish, which he did by bringing it home in 4th.
Simone Bertolotti expected Day 1 to be wet and rough and prepared the car accordingly only to see it slide around on the dry and smooth gravel roads. The 24-year old driver from Piemonte (60kms south of Turin) had never driven on such sandy and fast stages before, and he grew in confidence and speed as the event progressed. He tried to push harder at the beginning of SS15 and almost went off twice, so he eased off and finished a solid 5th.
Pirelli Star Driver finalist Radoslaw Typa was a J-WRC guest driver and keen to gain as much experience as possible. The 26-year old from Orneta started well, but an electrical problem with the fly-by-wire throttle on SS9 cost him time. Fortunately he was carrying the correct spares in the car and replaced the entire throttle body on the following road section. The same problem occurred on Day 3, but he was delighted to finish the event in 6th and score three J-WRC points.
On his first rally since crashing in Sardinia, severe oversteer at the start of Rally Poland wasn't the confidence boost that Luca Griotti was hoping for. Having waited his turn queuing for the Day 1 midday Service In control, his Clio's engine mysteriously refused to restart. He and co-driver Corrado Bonato pushed the car up the sandy incline, frustratingly arriving at the control one minute late for which they received a 10 second penalty. Water came into the car at the watersplash on SS9 and the windscreen misted up; when this happened in Portugal he continued and crashed, so this time Griotti wisely stopped to wipe the glass clean. He was 6th when a broken driveshalft stopped him on SS11, and he collected 15 minutes of penalties for not completing three stages. SS16 on Day 3 was his best stage a little late for a good result in Poland, but in a torrid season it was just what he needed prior to his favourite event, Rally Finland.
Marcin Dobrowolski had to replace his C2's engine after it blew up on the Shakedown, incurring a five minute penalty. Co-driven by his younger brother Marcin, the 28-year old J-WRC guest driver's troubled event continued when an electrical fire stopped him on SS3.
The team managed to repair the car to allow the double Polish Peugeot 206 Cup Champion from Swidnica to start Day 2, albeit 45th on the road and behind slower drivers. A problem with the throttle sensor reduced his C2 to 3,000rpm on SS9, but even with this problem Dobrowolski still overtook four cars on the 30km stage. After the team changed the entire pedal box at the lunchtime service, a water hose came loose on SS11. It dropped onto the exhaust, burnt a hole and when all the water had drained away Dobrowolski was forced to stop with engine problems. He was the only non-finisher from the nine J-WRC starters.