British rally driver Rhys Yates recorded a stunning debut in the FIA European Rally Championship (ERC) at the weekend, by taking third ERC Junior Under 28 driver.
Dubbed as one of the most competitive championships in the world, Yates would make his inaugural outing in the series on the mid-Atlantic Portuguese island which would also see the first appearance of his brand new Skoda Fabia R5.
Yates has enjoyed a positive two seasons in the Prestone MSA British Rally Championship, culminating in fourth place in the standings at the end of 2017. A shift from his Ford Fiesta R5 to the Skoda in 2018 shows the 25-year old means business and recruited the services of co-driver Elliott Edmondson for the Azores event.
Over 35 front-running R5’s were set to tackle the rally and the packed entry list was a further indication of the enormity of the task ahead for the Brettex backed driver on the ERC opener. Despite having never competed on the island before, Yates could tap into Edmondson’s knowledge having contested the tricky event previously.
The season opener would offer some of the most spectacular scenery on the tour with the stages passing over the very top of the volcanic mountain roads. The gravel tests would also be mixed with sections of asphalt and narrow, high-walled aspects also added an extra dimension to the unique event.
Yates did not take long to show how well he had acclimatised to the new Michelin-shod Skoda Fabia, posting fourth fastest time overall during the pre-event qualifying. With over 200km of special stage action ahead Yates would need to pace himself and was eager to start his season off with a solid finish on the board.
Almost a quarter of a million spectators flocked to Azores to watch the three day event, with millions of fans joining from across the globe to watch the action unfold live the Eurosport Television network.
The opening afternoon consisted of three stages, but there would be no time to relax and two short sharp 3km tests sandwiched a 17km stage. Dropping some time on the longer Vila Franca São Brás, Yates was still happy to end the day 12th overall, despite suffering understeer on the asphalt sections.
The opening stage on day two would see Yates set the third quickest time overall, showing his ability to be fast out the blocks when required which brought him back up the leader board. He would post a string of impressive times on each test throughout the day, never falling below eighth spot.
The final leg would prove to be the hardest as Yates found himself starting third on the road. Already a tough position to be in for the ERC rookie, it was made worse when he was vaulted to first on the road due to the leading two cars having issues, becoming “road sweeper” for the later runners. But a mature approach to the five stages ensured he would cross the finish ramp delighted with his result.
“I really could not have asked for more this weekend, it’s been a mega start to the year” said Yates.
“The stages here are immense but some of the hardest I’ve done so I`m really pleased to have a decent pace on my debut here. I’m still learning the car and it’s the first time Elliott and I have sat together so to have some top three stage times is a real confidence boost”.
His result exceeded his expectations too.
“I was looking for a top ten result and with 35 other R5’s in the event with many of those crews having done this event before it would be a tall order. But to take the third place Under 28 Junior ERC podium is a really special result for me on my ERC debut. Massive thanks go to all the team for ensuring a trouble free weekend and of course Elliott for his great work this weekend. It’s been fantastic”.
Yates is sponsored by Brettex, Michelin Motorsport, Jordan Road Surfacing, Draper Tools, Rallynuts, Rainworth Skoda, Nicky Grist Motorsport, H&F Furniture and Protyre.