As always, the 2024 season gets off to the loudest start in northern Austria, where the first round of the Austria rally championship takes place at the Jännerrallye.
If you, dear readers, are wondering why this rally has been written about so often – that would be perfectly legitimate on your part. This rally certainly has the honor of always being in the spotlight of the rally week. That’s because few organizers remember to organize the rally once the calendars on the walls change. To be fair, the Jännerrallye was certainly not the only rally on the first weekend of 2024, with men and women competing in Finland, Norway and France. However, all of these rallies had a much more modest status. The Jännerrallye is characterized by its status – the organizers estimated that over 120,000 spectators attended the rally.
Jännerrallye simply translates as the January Rally. This event has been taking place since 1969, with various longer or shorter interruptions. Currently it is only a round of the Austrian championship, but in the past this rally was part of the European and Czech championships. Due to its date and geographical location, the Jännerrallye is very often reminiscent of the legendary Monte Carlo. The action takes place in mountainous areas on asphalt, but there is often snow and ice on the same stage. Therefore, the choice of tires and the calculation of where to get the most out of the rally and where to drive more cautiously determine the winners and losers of this rally. The legendary Pierbach and Liebenau stages are remembered by both participants and spectators for their unforgettable experiences and views.
This year, the rally was even held over three days. Short on Friday and much longer on Saturday and Sunday. There were a total of 18 special stages, which amounted to 160 sporting kilometers. As there are many special stages, the liaisons between them amounted to an impressive 660 km. Yes, there was a lot of time and a lot of kilometers to ride in the mountains of Austria. I’ve mentioned before that the Jännerrallye is like a little Monte-Carlo. That’s why Chris Ingram and Jan Černy, who rather modestly celebrated the new year, used this rally as a training session for the first round of the WRC. For the Brit it was the debut behind the wheel of the Škoda Fabia RS Rally2, Jan Černy, who just moved across the border, was in the Opel Corsa Proto car for the second year in a row. And as for the fast guests – there were even more of them. The Czech club was supported by Filip Mareš, who finished 7th in the 2023 ERC Championship, and Kristof Klaus came from Hungary. Both with a Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo. Defending home honors were Simon Wagner, who finished second last year, his brother Julian and a number of other fast Austrians. The spectators missed one crew thou – Hermann Neubauer, who has been fighting for victories in this and other Austrian rallies for years. This time he joined the commentary team for the live broadcast, which was admittedly of a high standard.
On Friday, many watched the rally with unimpressed with the weather – it was cloudy, wet, and not a bit of snow. The only thing stopping the drivers from going fast and clean was the mud and the difficulty of the special stages. Then Saturday came and with it some snow. In short – that’s when all the fun began. All the nuances of the weather made it even more difficult because the action takes place in the mountains, and the special stages are separated by different distances, so if it was just wet in one place, you had to try to keep the car on the snow slush in another. The choice of tires and car settings was rather like trying to put the tail of a donkey in the right place while blindfolded. The result of all this is a series of more or less painful incidents, simply due to a very poor and unpredictable grip. Some participants even changed their car suspension from asphalt to gravel on Saturday, expecting the snow to only increase. In hindsight, they were right. Michael Lengauer from Freistadt, where the rally is based, coped best with Saturday’s challenges. In the Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo, he built up a modest lead of 12 seconds over the Czech Filip Mareš. Rally favorite Simon Wagner had to accept a gap of half a minute, which had accumulated due to too many experiments with the car, which apparently did not work out.
When Sunday dawned, the main work for everyone was shoveling snow. This snow was already there on Saturday, but on Sunday it was proper snow. The last six stages became a complete survival on the narrow mountain roads and were very reminiscent of the legendary Monte-Carlo Rally. Simon Wagner, was the fastest on Sunday. However, the Austrian champion was just a few kilometers short of catching local hero Michael Lengauer, for whom it was a return to a rally car after a year’s break. The two were separated by just 14 seconds, while brother Julian Wagner finished third, 45 seconds behind. This rally was really difficult for a two-wheel drive vehicle, so the fastest such specimen – the Peugeot 208 Rally4 with Simon Seiberl – only finished 21st.
It is worth mentioning other interesting things that happened at this rally. Probably many people, even those not much involved in the rally, saw Johannes Keferboeck and Ilka Minor swapping their winter swim in the ice hole for a swim in the local swimming pool together with the entire Škoda Fabia RS Rally2. Fortunately, the crew was able to free themselves quickly from the sinking car. Former European Rally Champion Chris Ingram received some valuable lessons before the start of the Rally Monte-Carlo, but he could not be satisfied with the result: he finished sixth, more than 7 minutes behind the winner. At one point, the Brit made big mistakes with the tires, at another with his staying on the road. What’s also special about Austria is that there are some really interesting cars – for example, tenth place was taken by the Suzuki Swift ZMX, which could be compared to the Proto class. Rally Week wrote about it back in 2019 when it was just starting to race, and now it has 33 starts. Another interesting Proto is the aforementioned Jan Černy Opel Corsa Proto. The Czech had so much issues in these three days that he could tell a long story. Also long was the drive through the stages and therefore he only finished in 21st place. There is such a gentleman, Hermann Gassner Sr, a 64-year-old veteran who takes part in at least 10 rallies a year and has competed in… 604 rallies during his career. After being an absolute fan of Mitsubishi for the last few decades, the German is getting into the Toyota GR Yaris more and more often. This change enabled him to finish 12th overall. There are also a number of ancient Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI, Lancia Delta, Mazda 323 AWD, Audi Quattro etc. on the grid in Austria. Incidentally, the Ford Fiesta WRC car has also taken on the task of course car driving. So if you really want to see exotic cars, Austria is the perfect country for it, and the next more serious action is the Rebenland Rally in mid-March.
Photos – Jan Šmerda