Thrilling end to Rally Estonia as Linnamäe defeats Virves

Wet powerstage settles high-speed duel between young Estonian drivers in favour of Toyota man

FIA European Rally Championship 2024 Stop 4 – Otepää, Estonia

Georg Linnamäe snatched Rally Estonia victory from Robert Virves in a thrilling final stage to settle their titanic battle for home glory in the European Rally Championship.

In a year out from the World Rally Championship schedule, it was two of Estonia’s rising WRC2 contenders who pulled away from the ERC regulars to duel over victory, with Virves leading Linnamäe by just one second after they traded fastest times through Saturday.

The two close friends, each guided by an experienced British navigator in Craig Drew and James Morgan respectively, had picked up where they left off in Poland last weekend when Virves took a WRC2 podium by just 0.6 seconds over his compatriot.

The changeable weather played a role through the weekend and Linnamäe – driving a Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 run by Ott Tänak’s RedGrey squad – dropped 3.6s to Virves when he slid wide on mud in Sunday’s opener Otepää. He fought back in the first pass of Kambja, but Virves then produced a committed run in his Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 through the second pass of Otepää, where he was fastest by 6.4s to increase his lead to 9.3s before the powerstage.

That was a valuable margin to have considering the heavy rain that was forecast to hit the final test and would cause a delayed start, but it wouldn’t be enough.

Making the most of a softer tyre choice, Linnamäe attacked the extreme conditions of the powerstage and went 11.5s faster than his rival to steal top spot.

FIA European Rally Championship 2024 Stop 4 - Otepää, Estonia

Good friends Virves and Linnamäe - who share a birthday on Monday - embraced after the finish

“I gave it everything I had. It was just crazy, I think I had a moment in about every corner,” said Linnamäe after his run, describing the weekend-long fight with Virves as “most fun I’ve ever had in a rally car”.

After claming the trophy he added: “I can’t believe it. I think it’s the most ballsy stage I’ve ever done in my life, I left nothing out there. After the last stage we knew we had a big job ahead of us but we knew our tyre choice would pay off on this one.”

Virves was not surprised he gave away the time given his lack of traction, but said: “Overall we can be happy. We were quicker than all the ERC competitors through the weekend. We would have liked to win it, but Georg is the next one who I would want to win this, so it’s not that bad.”

Nikolay Gryazin completed the podium, more than half a minute back from the lead fight in his Citroën C3 Rally2. Gryazin grabbed third place on Saturday’s final stage from Mikko Heikkilä, who then retired mid-way through Sunday after his engine stalled upon landing from a jump.

Mads Østberg picked up fourth in his Citroën after passing Miko Marczyk, who relished the fight with WRC rally winners Østberg and Hayden Paddon.

FIA European Rally Championship 2024 Stop 4 - Otepää, Estonia

Paddon has opened up a seven-point lead in the championship

Recovering ground after a nose-heavy landing damaged his Hyundai in Saturday’s first stage and an unfavourable road position after opening Friday’s qualifying, Paddon had a moment early in the slippery powerstage and backed off after that, but still overhauled Marczyk to finish fifth.

That was four places in front of Paddon’s main championship rival Mathieu Franceschi, who struggled on his first visit to Estonia’s fast roads. Paddon therefore now leads Franceschi by seven points, with Østberg now within 20 points having been fastest besides Linnamäe and Virves in the powerstage.

Marczyk also lost a place at the end to Jon Armstrong, who bounced back from an impact with a tree and a puncture on SS9 to take sixth.

A week after starring on his Rally1 debut in Poland, Mārtiņš Sesks experienced a tough return to ERC duty, with a puncture in SS9 taking him from the top-six to finish 14th.

There was a clean sweep of class victories for young Estonian talent, with Romet Jürgenson taking the ERC3 win ahead of compatriots Patrick Enok and Joosep Ralf Nõgene, and Jasper Vaher on top in Junior ERC ahead of Calle Carlberg, who just beat points leader Mille Johansson.