So, to Estonia. Let the speed begin. But who’s the favorite this week. Ott Tänak; has to be. Doesn’t it?
The Estonian dominated last year’s event and it would take a brave man to bet against back-to-back wins for the local hero. Let me be that brave man. I’m going with Kalle Rovanperä.
Looking back to last year, maybe we’d been locked down for too long, but we were talking in rapturous terms about how the then 19-year-old Finn was favorite for Estonia’s first ever world championship counter.
The thinking was understandable: he drives a Toyota Yaris WRC and he’d grown up on the Baltic roads of Estonia and Latvia.
The bravery and response which accompany teenage years would work in his favor on an event where Tänak was the main threat. Yes, Tänak knew the roads and how the stages worked, but he was driving a Hyundai. And Hyundais had never really worked in the quick stuff.
How many times did we trot out the statistic that an i20 had never been on the podium in Jyväskylä?
No, anything other than a Toyota victory at Rally Estonia wasn’t going to happen. And Kalle would be the king of cool come Sunday afternoon.
Friday morning, first thing and things are looking good. Rovanperä’s fastest. And leading. Then, puncture. Eighth. Wind out of the sails and an event which had promised so much registered a fifth place.
Ask the drivers who’s in the box seat for a sunny Friday and they’ll point to the #69 Yaris WRCDavid Evans
Rovanperä said little at the time, but later admitted that one hurt. He’d fancied his chances. That was his fourth start in a Yaris WRC.
This time around he lands back into Tänak’s backyard with a season of experience and a real desire to turn a miserable start to 2021 around. And an even stronger desire to shake the monkey from his back and get a WRC win done.
Like Estonia last year, he went into Arctic Rally Finland as the definite favorite back in February. And like Estonia last year, Toyota’s chances of victory were undone by a pre-event test which didn’t go to plan.
In Lapland, the team tested on roads which were too cold and too fast. In Estonia last September, it was the same story (except for the cold bit) and they didn’t spend long enough on the technical, twisty sections. That left the Yaris short on grip and traction in the slower stuff.
This time, they’ve done a bit of everything. Elfyn Evans spent the longest of the three on a technical road and he’s happy with what he’s found from the car. With that data shared, Rovanperä is armed and dangerous. Especially starting from sixth on the road.
DirtFish contacted one of its Estonian sources who’d been out taking a peak at the roads around Otepää, the town south of Tartu where much of the route is focused.
“First on the road is definitely not the place to be. It’s been so hot here for so long. The summer’s been amazing and it looks like this will carry on through the rally.
“But that means there’s a s*** load of loose on the top. In the high-speed, [Sébastien] Ogier is really going to struggle to carry the speed, but the grip will just get better and better and better.
“Tänak is in a good place.”
“Yeah, I suppose he’s in a good place too…”
Ott is fourth in, Kalle sixth.
The flip side of benefitting from a swept road is the risk of running across rocks pulled out by the boys ahead. That’s much less likely to happen in Estonia than somewhere like Portugal or Sardinia.
Ask the drivers who’s in the box seat for a sunny Friday and they’ll point to the #69 Yaris WRC.
Things haven’t clicked for him yet, but I think there is a high chance they will this weekJari-Matti Latvala
And Rovanperä’s ready for a change of fortune. Yes, yes, I know Tänak is too. But you really get the feeling that Kalle’s coming to the boil right now. After binning it with a silly mistake in Croatia, he hasn’t really done much wrong. Retiring from Safari after being stuck in the sand was hard for the erstwhile African leader.
Talking to Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala about Rovanperä, he shares my view.
“I think you are right,” Latvala told DirtFish. “His chance here is high. He did really well in the high-speed in Arctic and, don’t forget, he built up his career in the young days driving on roads in Estonia and in Latvia.
“He knows these roads and the summer in Estonia has been similar to Finland, very, very warm. There will be a lot of loose.
“Safari, we saw some really good speed there and I believe the performance is there. Things haven’t clicked for him yet, but I think there is a high chance they will this week.”
Nobody doubts Rovanperä’s raw speed. The challenge will come in the rally craft. If he opens a lead early, can he manage the event? Probably more pertinently, if he’s in a dog-fight with Tänak into the final day, can he keep his nerve and commitment and win by a tenth of a second?
Not long before we find out…
What do you reckon? Can Rovanperä really beat Tänak on Estonian soil? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.