Motor sport fans on the island are in for a thrilling few days as the fourth round of the European Rally Championship, the CNP Asfalistiki Cyprus Rally gets under way today at 10am with an all-gravel Qualifying Stage in the Athalassa forest on the outskirts of Nicosia.
The top drivers then return to Rally HQ at the Philoxenia Conference Centre to choose their starting positions for the race proper on Saturday, according to their qualifying times.
The ceremonial start will take place on Larnaca’s Phinikoudes seafront at 7pm on Friday.
Saturday sees an early start, with the first crew heading out of the Service Park behind the Nicosia Police HQ at 7 am.
After tackling special stages at Kalo Chorio, Lefkara and Analiontas they will regroup in the capital ahead of the first run over the city centre Super Special stage which starts by the Field Club and takes them to the Markos Drakos roundabout, up to the Cyprus Museum for a hairpin turn and back down to the roundabout where they turn left towards the Pedieos bridge, execute a hairpin at the top and return to the roundabout, turn left and then over the pavement and into the moat in the buffer zone for the section in north Nicosia.
The stage has been shortened to minimise traffic disruption, but has proved highly popular with fans since it was first staged in 2014 and is seen as an innovative way of bringing the two communities in Cyprus together – indeed, the UN has described it as “the most successful measure in the building of trust between the communities”.
After a regroup at the Service Park the cars will head out again at 12.30pm to repeat the morning stages. The second run in central Nicosia starts at 4.59pm and the crews finish the day with the first car clocking into the Service Park for the overnight rest at 5.24pm.
Leg 2 on Sunday starts at 8.30am and covers stages in Yeri and Avdelero twice before heading east for the Love Cyprus Golden stages on the coast near Ormidhia and Cape Greco, and the finish in Ayia Napa.
The rally is usually held in September at the end of the ERC calendar, but was moved forward to cut costs for the drivers, many of whom have just been racing in Greece. This means the championship is wide open after just three rounds, and we will see some spirited action, and some new faces.
Seeded number one on the entry list is the Skoda Fabia R5 of Portugal’s Bruno Magalhaes who currently leads the ERC standings, 21 points ahead of defending champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Ford Fiesta R5), who won the last round in Greece. Both drivers have experience on the Cyprus event, although neither took part last year.
The rally is also part of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) and the Cyprus championship so there are crews in action in different categories. Popular Qatari driver Nasser Al-Attiyah is seeded number three in his Ford Fiesta R5: the four-time winner of this event is running in both the ERC and MERC categories and his local knowledge, coupled with his flair behind the wheel, suggest a podium finish is likely if he encounters no problems.
The local challenge is headed by relative newcomer Alexandros Tsouloftas (son of multi Cypriot rally champion Andreas). He finished an astonishing fourth overall on the Acropolis Rally a couple of weeks ago, and with experienced co-driver Denis Giraudet (who co-drove Armin Schwarz to victory here back in 1996) alongside him must be one of the favourites for top Cypriot driver in his Citroen DS3 R5.
Another local driver to watch out for is past winner Charlambos Timotheou who will be behind the wheel of a powerful SKODA Fabia R5 for only the second time, but has a wealth of experience on Cyprus rallies.
There are 14 special stages over the two-day event, covering some 219.74 competitive kilometres. The total distance including liaison sections is 724.11 kilometres.