Flying Prokop wins dramatic J-WRC battle in Sardinia
Martin Prokop (CZ, Citroën) scored a sensational FIA Junior World Rally Championship victory on the Rally d’Italia Sardegna, despite incurring two minutes of road penalties, picked up when he arrived late at three separate time controls. Co-driven by Jan Tománek, the 26-year old Citroën C2 S1600 driver had a fantastic fight with J-WRC leader Michal Kosciuszko (POL, Suzuki), and took the lead four stages from home and held it to win by 13.2 seconds.

Prokop took the lead for the first time after a stunning run saw him complete SS3 a full 24 seconds faster than his nearest rival. But on the following road section an electrical problem caused Prokop to arrive at the midday service in Olbia nine minutes late, for which he received a 90 second penalty which dropped him to third. Setting five out of six fastest stage times on day one kept Prokop in contention, and even with the penalty added he ended the opening day just 21.8 seconds behind the leader. Four more fastest stage times on day two should have given Prokop the lead, but he arrived late at the start control of SS10 (one minute) and SS11 (two minutes) after more electrical problems on the road sections, giving him another 30 seconds of penalties. Furthermore, he lost 20 seconds stuck behind a slowed Alessandro Bettega (I, Renault) on SS9 and was then blinded by the dust of a slowed Bernardo Sousa (whose Abarth Grande Punto was running with transmission problems) on SS12. Unable to see clearly, Prokop missed a corner 500 metres from the end of the stage and hit a tree, causing considerable damage to the front of his Citroën – yet despite having to reverse back onto the road, he still set the fastest J-WRC time on the stage; 10.5 seconds quicker than Kosciuszko.

Prokop finally regained the lead with fastest time on SS14, but a problem with the clutch made it a nervous run through the final three stages. He held on to score his second J-WRC win of the year and the eighth of his career, and whilst he remains third in the standings, he is now only eight points behind the leader.

Michal Kosciuszko (POL, Suzuki) continues to lead the J-WRC points table, having finished a close second to Prokop in Sardinia. The 24-year old driver soon discovered that his Swift S1600 was set too low and too soft for the bumpy gravel roads, and lost time early on in day one. Indeed, whilst adjustments continued throughout the event, like many others Kosciuszko discovered that finding the perfect set-up for stages that varied between slow, narrow and rough to fast, open and smooth, was not easy.

Kosciuszko took the lead on day two and enjoyed a great battle with Prokop. With little to separate them, Kosciuszko set out to try and repeat his Rally d’Italia Sardegna win of 12 months ago, but a front left puncture a few kilometres before the end of SS13 cost him 14 seconds, allowing Prokop to close to within 2.5 seconds of his lead. Kosciuszko couldn’t quite match Prokop’s pace and having slipped to second on SS14, a heavy landing on SS15 caused his Suzuki’s engine temperature to rise, but Kosciuszko pressed on and finished second after an exciting, all-out, run through the 17th and final stage.

Overheating problems slowed Aaron Burkart (D, Suzuki) on the first morning of the event and he found that this Swift’s engine would begin to cut out three-quarters of the way through each stage. He had a better run in the afternoon, when the opening day’s three stages were repeated, but whilst the top three (Bettega, Kosciuszko and Prokop) were separated by 21.8 seconds at the end of the day one, Burkart was in fourth, 1min 21secs further behind. He pressed on, but was forced to stop and change a front right puncture on SS11, which cost him another two and a half minutes. In the same stage a bolt broke on the rear boot and he drove the last section of the SS11 with it open and a lot of dust was sucked into the cockpit. Now almost six minutes behind the leader, Burkart’s attention turned to finishing the event and scoring valuable J-WRC points. He had a slight scare on day three when the battery voltage dropped, warning lights on the dashboard came on and the engine lost power, but the problem was fixed and he finished third – giving him six points and allowing him to stay second in the drivers’ standings.

Two sets of road penalties incurred on day one ruined any chance Yoann Bonato (F, Suzuki) had of winning J-WRC. The first occurred at the midday service when his co-driver hadn’t realised that the timekeeper hadn't marked their time upon entering the control. On discovering the clerical error, Benjamin Boulloud returned to the control, but the timekeepers gave him the current time and not the time he wanted – which was the time he’d entered at the service park earlier. As it’s the responsibility of the co-driver to keep the car’s paperwork in order, the crew had to accept a two minute penalty for arriving 12 minutes late into service. Later in the day, Bonato’s Swift S1600 wouldn’t restart after the remote refuelling stop at Alá dei Sardi and they arrived six minutes late at the service in control and picked up another one minute penalty.

Thereafter, Bonato enjoyed a trouble-free day two and three to finish fourth.

Worried about the damage the rougher sections may cause, Alessandro Bettega (I, Renault) started his home round of the P-WRC with two sump guards fitted for double protection, but soon found that the extra weight upset the balance of his Clio R3. Helped by Prokop’s time penalties, Bettega completed day one with a 15.7 second J-WRC lead, despite hitting a bank and almost rolling on SS6. He was in a close three-way battle for the lead when on a slow corner near the start of SS9 his car jumped out of a rut and into a ditch. He lost over six minutes as spectators pushed him back onto the road, as he dropped down to fifth and out of contention. He then had to drive for 5kms on a front right puncture in SS11 before he could find a safe place to pull over and replace the wheel, losing another five minutes in the process. He started day three in sixth, just 42.9 seconds behind Hans Weijs. It took him just two stages to overhaul the Dutchman and move into fifth, his eventual finishing position.

Once his early brake problems were fixed, Hans Weijs (NL, Citroën) was able to complete day one’s loop of three stages over a minute quicker on the second run through, even though the roads were considerably rougher. He began day two over three minutes behind the J-WRC leader, but lost more time struggling for traction. New dampers improved the handling of his C2 S1600 for the afternoon, but the rear boot flew open after a heavy landing on SS11 and much of the glass was smashed – filling the car with choking dust. Weijs then had to stop twice – once to replace a rear right puncture and a few kilometres later to change a front left puncture – and he eventually arrived at the end of SS11 having lost over four minutes. Dust filled the car again on SS12 and he was pleased to reach the end of the day, and the shower in his hotel, after a torrid day had seen him slip to over 11 minutes behind the leader. Weijs was pleased to reach the finish of the tough event, and after Bettega used his greater Sardinia experience to overtake him on day three, Hans had to make do with sixth place.

Simone Bertolotti’s (I, Suzuki) rally started badly when he drove through part of SS1 with a slow puncture, costing him over a minute. The consequences were far more time-consuming, as he broke a driveshaft on SS2 and the differential let go on SS3. Having collected 20 minutes of penalties for missing four stages, Bertolotti restarted day two and lost more time when he hit a rock and broke a suspension arm on SS8. He persevered and came home seventh.

After showing good pace on his last outing in Portugal, Luca Griotti (I, Renault) had three dramatic days in Sardinia in which he retired on each of them. Brake problems saw the London-based Italian crash into a ditch 1km into SS1, he restarted day two and rolled 7kms into SS11, and then a wheel came off on SS13, bringing day three to an early close. Kevin Abbring (NL, Renault) had been quickest J-WRC driver at Shakedown, but it all went wrong for the 20-year old student from Son in The Netherlands when he hit a rock and damaged the oil sump 5kms into SS2. He drove on for another kilometre, but was forced to retire his Clio R3 when it lost oil pressure.

1st – Martin Prokop, Citroën C2 S1600:
“We have pushed hard all weekend and we had no slow stage. Michal was very fast on the penultimate stage, so we had to keep pushing on the final stage. I am very happy to finish first, especially as we have had a lot of problems. In the end the car was fantastic and I have to thank my team for that. I'm very happy with my pace this weekend, I was able to take back the time I lost with time penalties so it's a boost of confidence for the next events.”

2nd – Michal Kosciuszko, Suzuki Swift S1600:
“We tried to push, but then we had an engine overheating problem on the first stage of the last loop of the final day and we lost a lot of time there. I'm still leading J-WRC, which is good, but if we want to win this championship we really need to win in Poland and Finland.”

3rd – Aaron Burkart, Renault Clio:
“It’s been a very hot rally – for the engine and the entire crew. In Argentina we could cope with the fastest guys, but here we were not on the same pace of the leaders. That is a shame, but it’s always good to score a podium result, so I am not too unhappy.”

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