The fight for victory on Rally Estonia had been intense. Ever since Ott Tänak dropped out of contention with a puncture, it’s been up to Kalle Rovanperä and Craig Breen to slug it out for the win.
There’s plenty on the line – neither driver has won a round of the World Rally Championship before.
But now, it looks like a settled affair as Breen is instead more worried about protecting his second place than he is fighting for first.
Rovanperä was simply in another league on Saturday’s first stage. Obliterating Breen by 14.3 seconds – and second-quickest Tänak by 10.7s – in 14.62 miles, Rovanperä almost tripled his lead advantage from 8.5s to 22.8s.
As Breen succinctly put it to DirtFish after the morning loop: “He’s basically blown the doors off us on the first one.”
Weirdly, Rovanperä didn’t feel like his drive was that special.
“I think in the first part I was a bit too careful, I didn’t feel so good,” he said. “I found a good pace and really enjoyed it.
“We knew already after the recce that that can be one of the key stages, there can be big gaps,” he added. “So yeah for sure [we did] really good preparation for that and it paid off.”
It was a suckerpunch for Breen, who had hoped to challenge Rovanperä, at least for a little longer, for the victory.
“It’s a little bit frustrating,” he said. “I did really give the first one everything I had this morning, at least everything that I had at this moment and it wasn’t to be.”
Breen can at least take solace in the fact that he probably shouldn’t have been as close to Rovanperä as he was.
Estonia is his first gravel rally in a World Rally Car since the same event 10 months ago, while the rest of the service park have done just done three gravel events in a row, and Breen reckons that that lack of seat-time played a big part in his substantial time loss on SS10.
“Kalle did an incredible job,” Breen conceded. “I think when you’re comfortable in your environment and everything feels all natural and snug then you can take those risks, especially on the narrower roads, when there’s not much room for error you can make quite a bit of difference.
“I just didn’t feel snug and comfy as I wanted but I did everything I could, and after that we just have to try and control it.”
But what does ‘snug and comfy’ really mean?
“I know from being in the R5 car all the time, I know its limits and I know every little detail, even down to how wide the car is and how much you can slide it,” Breen explained.
“Whereas this [World Rally Car], it’s always a little bit strange, you get one day landed back into it again, having done 100s and 100s of kilometers on gravel in the R5 car and then jump straight back into this.
“On the wider roads I can be fast and be confident but when you have trees lining the roads in places and you’re not quite sure how long this thing is, it’s a little bit tricky sometimes but I think we’re managing OK.”
The net result is a disappointing one for the neutral though. With Rovanperä 35.7s clear out front, it doesn’t look like he can be caught and Breen agrees.
His plan for the afternoon loop?
“Obviously try to keep the gap to third, that’s the most important thing. I have quite a nice margin now. During the loop we haven’t lost any seconds at all so it’s been comfortable, that’s all we can do.”
If Rovanperä holds his lead to the end and becomes the youngest winner in WRC history, that epic performance on Peipsiääre will be talked about for a long, long time.
He isn’t quite ready to check out just yet though.
“Anything can happen and when it’s rough it’s not so easy, you cannot go so slow but you still have to have a good pace. You just have to go and see what happens.”