Hyundai’s Ott Tänak recorded a largely straight-forward victory on the South Estonia Rally ahead of the World Rally Championship’s visit to Estonia, beating Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä by 13.7s.
Situated around the Võru service park, the event had been reduced to just one day due to a rise in COVID-19 cases within Estonia.
This meant that Saturday’s planned running was replaced by a shakedown, topped by six-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier in his Toyota Yaris WRC.
But it was the defending WRC Champion Tänak who proved the man to beat on his home event, winning seven out of the eight stages.
Rovanperä, in just his second true gravel event in the Yaris WRC, finished a strong runner-up to Tänak – taking a stage win – and ahead of Ogier who completed the podium in third.
Seven WRC drivers took part in the event which was used as the unofficial warm-up to Estonia’s maiden WRC round in a fortnight’s time.
Rain in the morning meant that much of the stages in the opening loop were wet, leaving the front-runners struggling with grip and traction.
Tänak, although lamenting the “soft” surface, swept to all four stage wins before midday service and was only beaten on SS6 Muna Liisa – Ruusmäe by Rovanperä.
Having built a lead of over seven seconds, the local favorite then pressed on after service, winning SS5 RedGrey – Kündja by 2.5s to increase his margin over Rovanperä to 10 seconds.
The Finnish youngster closed the gap briefly after his SS6 win but Tänak responded on SS7 to restore his margin of 10.7s.
The gap increased again as Tänak also claimed the powerstage victory around Ruusmäe, going 2.9s quicker than Ogier on the final test.
Ogier’s route to third place was serene, despite being 29 adrift of Tänak by the finish.
Running first on the road in the morning, the Frenchman was hampered by “being too careful” and “not trusting the notes” following the extended break between events.
Ogier briefly lost third to team-mate Elfyn Evans but regained that spot after Evans crashed on the first stage after midday service.
Evans had been in a lively fight for the place with Ogier when he reportedly clipped a tree stump on a fast sixth-gear right-hander.
The Toyota went into the trees and suffered heavy damage, although both Evans and co-driver Scott Martin emerged unharmed in the incident.
Evans’ off meant that Esapekka Lappi in a privately entered Ford Fiesta WRC was able to finish fourth ahead of Tänak’s Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville.
Neuville began the morning experimenting somewhat with the differential on his i20 Coupe WRC and admitted that the Estonian roads were “a lot faster than I expected”.
He then suffered a water pump issue after midday service, which subsequently led to a 1m30s time penalty for arriving late to the time control. He and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul finished fifth.
OT Racing driver Georg Gross – alongside Tänak’s former co-driver Raigo Mõlder – ended up sixth in another Fiesta WRC.
Jari Huttunen produced a sensational final stage performance to snatch victory in the Rally2 section, clawing back 5.5s on the powerstage to beat Hyundai junior driver Nikolay Gryazin by just over three seconds.
Both had trailed Eerik Pietarinen in the morning before the first service of the day, but Gryazin won the final two tests of the loop to go into midday service with a 0.1s advantage over the Finn.
Pietarinen then went two seconds faster on SS5 to reclaim the lead, while Huttunen dropped behind another of the Hyundai juniors, Ole Christian Veiby, to fourth.
After Pietarinen lost nearly 10s on SS6, Gryazin was back in the lead, but with Huttunen now the closest rival as Veiby also lost crucial seconds.
Huttunen trailed Gryazin by 4.9s heading into the final two stages of the rally, but by winning both – 3.8s quicker on SS7 and 2.8s on SS8 – Huttunen came out on top. Pietarinen clung onto third ahead of Veiby by just 2.5s.
M-Sport WRC driver Teemu Suninen finished sixth after suffering a puncture on the opening stage of the rally before a loss of power at a junction shipped more time.