Kalle Rovanperä came out on top of a thrilling chase for FIA World Rally Championship success with Thierry Neuville to lead Rally Estonia after today’s pulsating opening leg (Friday).
Just 3.0s separate the duelling duo after 133.38 kilometres of thrilling competition on lightning-fast gravel roads around Estonia’s second city Tartu, host to round eight of this year’s WRC season.
Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid star Neuville was quickest out of the blocks and outpaced his Finnish rival on all three of the morning’s stages to build a 6.8s advantage at the midpoint service. But the tables were turned in Rovanperä’s favour on the repeated loop later in the day.
The Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid-driving sensation posted a brace of benchmark times to reel Neuville in, snatching the top spot in Mustvee 2. The Belgian pulled back a single tenth in the following test but was ultimately no match for Rovanperä in the Neeruti finale, visited only once.
“It has not been such a bad day overall,” said Rovanperä, winner of the past two editions of Rally Estonia. “I am a bit disappointed that I lost a bit of time going wide in one corner [in the final stage] but it was not so bad. I tried to push a bit but in the first pass conditions it’s not so easy.”
Esapekka Lappi’s Hyundai was put at a power disadvantage when he “jumped too far” in SS2, causing the car’s hybrid unit to stop working. Repairs were made in service and the resurgent Finn fought back to claim third overall, leapfrogging Elfyn Evans on the penultimate stage. He headed the GR Yaris-driving Welshman by 2.7s at close of play.
Teemu Suninen was all smiles after successfully completing his first day behind the wheel of a Rally1-specification Hyundai, which he was driving in the WRC for the first time. Although he was, at times, left speechless by the raw speed of the car, the 29-year-old set a respectable pace and trails Evans by 16.9s in fifth.
Pierre-Louis Loubet holds sixth in his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid, a top-three time in Raanitsa 2 being the highlight of his day.
His team-mate and home favourite Ott Tänak would have been leading the rally on outright pace after a succession of fastest stage times. However, the Estonian was handed a five-minute time penalty prior to the start after his M-Sport team had to change his Puma’s engine when a fault developed in Thursday morning shakedown.
Takamoto Katsuta lacked confidence in his Toyota and languished 16.7s behind Loubet in seventh overall as a consequence. Behind him are FIA WRC2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen, who leads fellow Rally2 drivers Gus Greensmith and Sami Pajari overnight. Pajari is the top FIA WRC2 Challenger competitor ahead of Estonian driver Georg Linnamäe.
Roope Korhonen seized the FIA WRC3 initiative when impressive world championship rookie Benjamin Korhola slid into a ditch through a heavily rutted section on SS6 and got stuck.
Grégoire Munster leads FIA Junior WRC rival Laurent Pellier by 12.6s after championship pacesetter William Creighton retired with steering damage on SS5.
Mauro Miele is just 6.9s ahead of Alexander Villaneuva in the WRC Masters’ Cup.
Saturday’s route is centred around the ski resort of Otepää. Double runs of Mäeküla (10.27km) and Otepää (11.15km) are followed by a service halt before the action resumes with Elva (11.73km) and Kanepi (16.48km), both of which are driven twice. A rerun of the Tartu vald superspecial stage rounds out the day.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris 1h 12m 22.2s
2. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +3.0s
3. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Hyundai i20 N +12.2s
4. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +14.1s
5. T Suninen / M Markkula FIN Hyundai i20 N +33.8s
6. P Loubet / N Gilsoul FRA Ford Puma +48.8s