The European Junior U28 Rally Championship is only in its second year, but it’s already proving a popular series with many of Europe’s most talented drivers. It offers an opportunity to compete in an international championship, to develop skills in major rallies, and can provide a vital stepping-stone in a young driver’s development.
The ERC Junior U28 Championship is only open to drivers of R5 cars who were born on or after 1st January 1989. Given these criteria, it is little wonder that a number of drivers have chosen to enter in a ŠKODA FABIA R5, the most successful R5 car in world rallying.
It was a FABIA R5 which took the inaugural ERC Junior U28 Championship last year, as the German Marijan Griebel won three of the opening four rounds to clinch the title with two rounds to spare.
The runner-up last year was Russia’s Nikolay Gryazin. The Sports Racing Technologies team driver, who is still just 21 years of age, was back this season with co-driver Yaroslav Fedorov, hoping to go one better.
There was no Griebel in the competition this season, but there was still a strong field to contend with. Present were Gryazin’s fellow FABIA R5 drivers Fabian Kreim, who already has two German Rally Championships under his belt, Britain’s Chris Ingram, who was driving a FABIA R5 for the first time, and the Swede Fredrik Åhlin, who was 2nd in last year’s British Rally Championship.
The opening round of this year’s ERC Junior U28 Championship was the Azores Airlines Rallye in Portugal and it saw the FABIA R5 continuing where it left off last season. ŠKODA drivers filled the podium, but Nikolay Gryazin was not amongst them as he didn’t start in this event.
Instead, it was the Toksport WRT driver Chris Ingram who got his challenge off to the perfect start. He finished more than a minute ahead of Fredrik Åhlin, with another Brit, Rhys Yates, steering his FABIA R5 into 3rd place. Fabian Kreim finished back in 5th position.
Gryazin began his challenge at the next round, the Rally Islas Canarias in Spain, and got things off to a perfect start. He took the win by 38 seconds from Kreim in 2nd place, while Ingram was forced to retire on medical grounds after feeling unwell.
Round three was the Rallye di Roma Capitale in Italy, where just about everything that could go wrong for Gryazin, did. After a strong start, he hit a corner on stage four which forced him to stop temporarily. Damage from that incident eventually forced him to retire from the opening leg. He returned in the second leg and managed to claw his way back up to sixth in the Junior U28 standings, but with Fabian Kreim winning ahead of a returning Ingham and Åhlin in third, he still lost valuable points.
So, at the halfway point in the Championship Gryazin was some way off the pace. With the final three rallies all taking place on familiar territory in Central and Eastern Europe , he was far from out of contention.
And so it proved. The fourth round was the hugely competitive Barum Czech Rally Zlín in the Czech Republic. ŠKODA Motorsport’s Jan Kopecký took the overall win, but Gryazin finished a hugely creditable 5th and, most importantly 1st in the Junior U28 standings, ahead of Fabian Kreim in 2nd and Chris Ingram in 3rd place.
Next up was Rally Poland, which the previous year had been a WRC event but which was now on the ERC calendar again. Gryazin claimed a hugely impressive overall victory – in the Junior U28 standings, he was almost 2 and a half minutes ahead of Ingram and Kreim in the podium positions.
That result meant that three FABIA R5 drivers, Gryazin, Ingham, and Kreim, all went into the final round, the Rally Liepāja, with just eight points separating them. All had a chance of winning the Junior U28 title.
Gryazin went in with a small psychological advantage, having won at this event in Latvia the previous season, and that experience proved to be crucial. Gryazin dominated proceedings, leading from start to finish to claim the overall victory – and with it the ERC Junior U28 Championship title for 2018.
Ingram finished second, both in Latvia and in the final season standings. Åhlin was on the podium once more, while Fabian Kreim was 4th. Remarkably, a FABIA R5 driver occupied each of the top 8 places in the Rally Liepāja’s overall final standings.
Along with his title win, Gryazin also won a choice between driving in a WRC-spec car at a European round of the 2019 World Rally Championship, or having his costs covered for two of next season’s ERC rounds in an R5 car. He’s decided his development will be best served by the latter offer.
“I don’t show emotions too much but I’m really happy”, he said at the finish line in Latvia. “We improved a lot this year, we had a good strategy and prepared well for each event. Now I’m looking towards next year when I’ll get two rounds of the ERC as my gift from Eurosport.”
Gryazin is still just 21 years old and, as well as winning the Junior U28 title, he also finished second in the final standings of the full ERC Championship too. With a big financial boost for the 2019 season already under his belt, claiming both titles next season is certainly an achievable goal for this rapid young Russian.