This weekend, the Portugese archipelago of the Azores hosted the kickoff of the European Rally Championship 2018. The competition held all its promises. Speed, action, show, crashes and breathtaking landscapes. Everything was in place. In a completely mad atmosphere, Russian Alexey Lukyanuk won the rally. We were there to take in the incredible fervour that reigns around rallying on the islans of São Miguel.
A little of Ireland, of its greenery, a little of Auvergne, with its volcans, a little of Iceland, of its black cliffs, a little of Canada, with its lakes and pine tree forests, of Italy, with its villages, and with colours, flowers and life. A little of everything in fact. This is the Azores: An island with magnificent sceneries, lost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, theatre of the first round of the 2018 ERC.
For almost a full week (between testing and the stages), the archipelago lived the rythm of backfiring engines. One week during which tractors and rally cars drove together on the road. And on this subject, Pierre-Louis Loubet, Team Oscaro driver in the ERC U28 category, has a surprising anecdote to tell us:
"We were on a liaison between two stages. In front of us, a guy at the wheel of his tractor. His eyes stared at our car, he seemed to be fascinated. He didn't look ahead of him to a point that he was going straight towards us. At the last moment, he swerved to avoid us, and his tractor tipped over. We really got scared."
An accident due to the curiosity of a farmer, who for an instant wanted to observe the Hyundai i20 R5 driven by the BRC Racing driver.
As him, a lot of Azoreans contributed in their manner, to make the charm of the Azores rally, one of the most popular rounds in the European Championship. “We have the impression that the entire island has come to see us. We feel all the love that this people has for rallying” adds Pilouis, talking about the enthusiasm around his sport.
Tens of thousands of fans were present on the side of the road, to watch the swaths of cars. Notably during the Grupo Marques Super Special Stage. “It was amazing, there were people everywhere, it was magical” describes Vincent Landais, co-driver of Loubet. To see the R5 cars jump in the stone quarry of São Miguel, at least 3000 people were present.
An atmosphere comparable to a football stadium. Flags, foghorns, beers, pop-corn, everything was present, to the great pleasure of adults and children alike. Because in the Azores, rallying is a family activity. Paulo, owner of Ponta Delgada restaurant Mariserra, told us that he brought his son to a stage “so he could discover the passion of rallying“.
“This sport is anchored into the local culture” Paulo goes on to say, elbow on the counter of his restaurant where the odours of lapas, cracas and other local specialities mix with a racing atmosphere. Also, the entryway of the restaurant, is covered in photos of cars, racing drivers…
At the end of the meal, Paulo calls out: “Do you see this man?” pointing with his finger towards the television, where Bernardo Souza is being interviewed. “He participates in the rally, he eats here almost every day. And he is not alone, my restaurant is somewhat of an obligatory passage for the teams in the rally“
Since 1965, the Portugese archipelago welcomes each year the rally (except in 1974). A period that has become essential for the islanders, as a shopowner tells us:
"Here, people take out vacation days to follow the rally. They absolutely do not want to miss it"
And to miss absolutely nothing of the event, the Azoreans give themselves the means, they help each other. It was the case during the spectacular Sete Cidades stage, where we attended a sympathic scene: On a narrow, winding, stony road leading up to the volcano ridge, a perfect viewpoint to watch the stage, a parade of 4×4 and pickups pass by us, full to the brim with spectators. Seeing that we has issues going up, a driver stops: “Park your cars here, you’re coming with me“. Supportive, their goal is simple: help everyone to have the best experience possible.
In the Azores, values mean something: one loves, one gives, one lives, simply. In this village on the heights of Provoçao, a small fishing port in the south-east of the island, where in the space of a few metres, all instances of life were reunited as one: the kid eating his snack besides his mother, to the old man observing, sitting in the stairs, to the woman that is hanging up her laundry, basket in hand. Only the family father was missing, and everything is there. But in this period, you might just find him on the border of a rally stage.
Elsewhere, in the heart of the second stage, between a green field and a pine forest, we see a group of friends. Maybe a family father is among them. Sitting on a big haystack, not far from a herd of cows, at the exit of a bend, the three men shout, laugh, have fun. With them they have a red cooler, full of beer. They are happy. They come towards us: “A beer? They are excellent!“. Then, after the passage of a car, one of them asks us shouting: “According to you, what is the most beautiful rally in the world?” He does not give us any time to think before giving us his already prepared answer “The Azores Rally!“.
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