Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin lead Rally Estonia at the midday halt in Tartu after they claimed a quartet of stage wins in their Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.
The British pairing, who were two-tenths off the lead in third after Thursday night’s curtain-raising superspecial stage in host city Tartu, blasted to the head of the pack on Friday’s opening 24.35-kilometre Peipsiääre test, the longest of the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Evans, from Wales, topped the timesheets on the following three stages to reach the mid-leg service with a 12.5s advantage over home hero Ott Tänak.
“It’s been pretty good overall,” Evans said. “The car is working well and I have confidence behind the wheel. I just need to keep it up this afternoon. It [the roads] could look very different, you can’t take anything for granted.
“It wasn’t such a nice feeling in the first stage because I wasn’t fully relaxed, but I was more comfortable in the next one, more used to the speed,” added Evans, who, like all the top-tier contenders, is driving a new-era hybrid Rally1 car on superfast gravel for the first time.
Tänak, in common with his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 team-mates, spent the morning adjusting his car’s set-up in an attempt to improve grip. The Estonian felt his car lacked power in the opener but the issue resolved itself. He later admitted his fine-turning initially went in the wrong direction and made the handling worse.
“We made some changes and basically came back,” Tänak said. “I’m driving very hard but it’s more like fighting and not driving fast. I’m looking to have a good lunch and we’ll go again!” he said.
FIA World Rally Championship leader and road opener Kalle Rovanperä was a further 6.2s back in third in his GR Yaris and coping well with the loose stones on the mainly dry road surface. The leading trio filled the top three places on all four stages.
More than 20s separated the Finn from Thierry Neuville in fourth. The Belgian overshot a hairpin in the final stage and went too far in stiffening his i20 N, losing grip as a result.
He had 2.6s in hand over Esapekka Lappi, who reported brake issues in his GR Yaris all morning. He was unable to use left foot braking and had to change his driving style.
Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux relished the fast roads in his Ford Puma Rally1 and climbed from 12th overnight to sixth, just ahead of Takamoto Katsuta’s GR Yaris. The Japanese driver made a steady start after Thursday’s shakedown roll but grew in confidence as the morning progressed.
Gus Greensmith has yet to find his ideal rhythm in eighth, ahead of Puma team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet and a frustrated Oliver Solberg. The Swede lost time with a spin and a stall on SS4 and reported having no confidence due to a lack of grip.
Overnight leader Craig Breen was the morning’s big loser. The Irishman was fourth until he slid off the road on a quick left corner on SS4, hitting a post in the grass. The impact broke his Puma’s front-left suspension and forced the M-Sport driver to retire from the leg.
Finland’s Emil Lindholm heads Škoda-powered Toksport WRT team-mate and defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) in FIA WRC2 with Finn Teemu Suninen third in a Hyundai Motorsport N-entered i20 N Rally2. Estonian Egon Kaur is fourth in a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, which is nursing cosmetic damage following an earlier incident. Lindholm also heads the WRC2 Junior category ahead of Marco Bulacia.
Local star Robert Virves tops the FIA Junior WRC order with a 4.4s margin over Sami Pajari from Finland. Championship leader Jon Armstrong from Northern Ireland is third. All Junior WRC drivers use Ford Fiesta Rally3s prepared by M-Sport Poland and equipped with Pirelli tyres.
Following service at the Estonian national museum in Tartu, SS6 is due to get underway at 15h16 local time (14h16 CET).