Kalle Rovanperä came out on top of a thrilling battle with Thierry Neuville to lead Rally Estonia after Friday’s pulsating opening leg.
Just 3.0sec separated the duelling duo after 133.38km of thrilling competition on lightning-fast gravel roads around Estonia’s second city Tartu, host to round eight of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship.
Hyundai i20 N star Neuville was quickest out of the blocks and outpaced his Finnish rival on all three of the morning’s stages to build a 6.8sec advantage at the midpoint. But the tables were turned in Rovanperä’s favour on the repeated loop later in the day.
The Toyota GR Yaris 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, traversed only once.
“It seems that we did quite a clean day, said Rovanperä, winner of the past two Rally Estonia editions. We tried to push all the time without any mistakes and at the end it’s not so bad. Thierry has been driving really well today so let’s see tomorrow. We will both have better starting positions so I hope our pace can at least come a bit easier than today.”
Esapekka Lappi’s Hyundai was put at a power disadvantage when he “jumped too far” in SS2, causing the car’s hybrid unit to cease working. Repairs were made in service and the resurgent Finn fought back to claim third overall, leapfrogging Elfyn Evans in the penultimate stage. He headed the GR Yaris-driving Welshman by 2.7sec at close of play.
Teemu Suninen was all smiles after successfully completing his first day behind the wheel of a Rally1-specification Hyundai. Although he was, at times, left speechless by the raw speed of the car, the 29-year-old set a respectable pace and trailed Evans by 16.9sec in fifth.
Pierre-Louis Loubet was sixth in a Ford Puma, 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. However, the Estonian was dealt a five-minute time penalty prior to the start because his M-Sport Ford team carried out an engine replacement after the car developed an issue during Thursday’s shakedown.
Takamoto Katsuta lacked confidence in his Toyota and languished 16.7sec back from Loubet in seventh overall as a consequence. Behind him was WRC2 leader Andreas Mikkelsen, who led fellow Rally2 drivers Gus Greensmith and Sami Pajari overnight.
Saturday 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. An encore of the Tartu vald 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