It’s time for the talking to stop and the stopwatch to start. While some have been driving in tests, on rallies or simply on their simulator trying to rack in the miles, the World Rally Championship’s support cast is desperate to get its teeth into some more action, beginning with this weekend’s Rally Estonia.
Thirty Rally2 cars will take the start, split into the WRC2 class for manufacturer-affiliated entries and WRC3 for privateer runners.
Six of the best will line-up in WRC2, headed by championship leader Mads Østberg. Despite his closest rival, Hyundai’s Nikolay Gryazin, having entered all three of the rounds held thus far compared to Østberg’s two, it’s the Norwegian who tops the table with a nine-point margin, courtesy of victories in Monte Carlo and Sweden.
Gryazin would appear to be the danger man for Estonia though. The Russian driver is at home on lightning fast gravel tracks, and was ahead of Østberg on the European Rally Championship’s Rally Liepaja last month before he crashed his i20 R5.
He also got seat-time on the recent South Estonia Rally, along with Hyundai team-mate Ole Christian Veiby, so sharpness won’t be an issue.
M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux stacks up favorably in the seat-time department too, with Rally Estonia his third event in as many weekends. An appearance on the M-Sport Return to Rally Stages on August 22 was followed by Rallye Terre de Lozère in his native France, where he was a close second. Big things are on the horizon for Fourmaux.
Toksport’s Škoda duo of Pontus Tidemand and Eyvind Brynildsen are the other two contenders in this class. Brynildsen will make his first WRC start of the season, having only contested his first rally of the year two weeks ago in South Estonia, while Tidemand will look to recapture the form that took him to class victory and sixth overall on Rally México.
A run out on Rally Sweden Lockdown in June and rallycross appearances at Höljes should ensure he is sharp enough, but his last event in a rally car was a longer time ago than that of all his rivals.
Leading WRC2 shakedown times:
- Østberg (Citroën)
- Veiby (Hyundai) +0.9s
- Tidemand (Škoda) +2.5s
- Gryazin (Hyundai) +3.6s
- Brynildsen (Škoda) +5.7s
Oliver Solberg might be a lowly 14th in the WRC3 standings and only the eighth seed in the category on the entry list, but it’s hard to look past Petter’s son when it comes to success this weekend.
Firstly, he’s been busy. Competing in the Solberg World Cup on DiRT Rally 2.0 to begin with, he then entered – and won – Rally Sweden Lockdown ahead of Tidemand before heading to the ERC.
Which leads on to the second point: he’s fast. Nobody expected him to put his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 up in third place on the asphalt of Rome, but his second Rally Liepaja success in a row was more fancied. On roads similar to the Latvian ones he’s made his own, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
Top seed Jari Huttunen however is a real threat and sits joint at the top of the championship with Eric Camilli and Marco Bulacia after winning in Sweden back in February.
Since then, he’s been quietly going about his business on the asphalt, coming third on Rally Bohemia in the Czech Republic, second on Rally di Alba in Italy and first on Rajd Rzeszowski in Poland.
Snatching the class win from Gryazin in South Estonia proved he still has it on the loose too. After a frustrating fluctuation between greatness and mediocrity in recent years, could things finally be clicking for Huttunen?
Bulacia and Frenchmen Nicolas Ciamin and Yoann Russel will all pilot Citroën C3 R5s, along with US hope Sean Johnston who makes his long-awaited four-wheel-drive debut in the WRC.
Grégoire Munster’s seventh place on Rally Liepaja belied his lack of experience and ensures he’ll be one to watch while Eerik Pietarinen should be too given his fourth place in Latvia and third in class in South Estonia.
Triple European Rally Champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz will make his second WRC3 start of the season in a Škoda Fabia Rally2, while last year’s Junior WRC Champion Jan Solans makes his first start in the Ford Fiesta Rally2 he was gifted for winning that series.
Raul Jeets and Roland Poom – stepping up from Junior WRC to WRC3 – will be relishing the fact the WRC has unexpectedly headed to their native Estonia this season, but there’s a whole host of local chargers out to upset the apple cart.
Karl Krudda tops the list in his Polo GTI R5 after stepping away from the WRC’s support categories after a woeful 2015 season in a Citroën DS3 R5, with Egon Kaur – the man who tied with Craig Breen in the 2011 WRC Academy but lost out due to fewer stage wins – also appearing from the wilderness, driving a Fabia Rally2.
Leading WRC3 shakedown times:
- Huttunen (Hyundai)
- Solberg (VW) +0.8s
- Kaur (Škoda) +1.8s
- Bulacia (Citroën) +1.9s
- Pietarinen (Škoda) +2.2s
Three men appear to be favorite for success in Junior WRC this weekend, and they’re the three that proudly stood on the Rally Sweden podium earlier this year.
It’s been a topsy-turvy year for the JWRC crews away from the stages with Chile’s cancelation and then the coronavirus messing up the calendar, but it’s done nothing to temper Tom Kristensson’s pace. The Swede won at home, the only JWRC round held so far, and almost claimed last year’s title. He’s admitted that 2019 was all about experience. and 2020 is about winning.
Mārtiņš Sesks – Kristensson’s former Opel team-mate in the ERC in 2018 – is looking like his closest challenger and is accustomed to the high-speed nature of Estonia as he hails from Rally Liepaja’s host city of, err, Liepaja. He also has a seat time advantage over Kristensson who hasn’t driven the Fiesta Rally4 since Sweden, but perhaps the man they should be worrying about is the third of the aforementioned trio.
Ken Torn. Estonian Ken Torn. Home advantage isn’t everything in rallying, but it certainly won’t hinder Torn’s chances. He and Sami Pajari – another to watch this weekend – enjoyed a good battle for third in Sweden but Torn’s experience of these types of roads is sure to propel him further forwards.
Elsewhere, Ruairi Bell deserves great plaudits for jumping back in the saddle following a scary accident on last weekend’s Rali do Alto Tâmega. The rally was meant to help him get back in the groove after rivals got back in theirs while he was stuck at home.
However that plan was skewed, and has unfortunately left him without the services of the experienced Darren Garrod in the co-driver’s seat for Estonia too. But Garrod’s driver in the British Rally Championship, series champion Matt Edwards, has stepped into the broach to make his first WRC start abroad, but in the co-driving seat.
Edwards should be up to the job as an accomplished driver coach and navigator himself, but to say it’s been a bumpy ride for Bell to make the start would be an understatement.
Leading Junior WRC shakedown times:
- Torn +0.7s
- Lönnström +3.3s
- Virves +5.2s
- Sesks +5.5s