The waiting is over. Or it will be come Saturday morning. Friday night’s Tartu loosener doesn’t really count. All eyes will be on the first loop of the weekend. And, more specifically, who’ll be first to drop the hammer.
Rarely, if ever, have a set of stage results been so eagerly anticipated. It’s close to six months since México. That’s way longer than the gap between the end of a ‘normal’ season and the start of the next. That’s way too long. But who’s going to be that guy? Who’s going to be the one who gets in it and on it first and fastest.
Six-time world champion Sébastien Ogier has the same question: “After such a long break, it’s difficult to find the limit straight away and to have a level of confidence high enough to push from the first kilometers,” said the Frenchman.
But he also seems to have the answer to the ultimate question.
He added: “It’s pretty clear to everybody who’s going to be the benchmark in Estonia. So, the target for everybody will be to try to follow him and fight with him.”
He is, of course, Ott Tänak.
Beyond the battle to stand taller than everybody else on Sunday afternoon, the other thing sweeping through the service park is the wave of gratitude that we are actually back.
Calendar revisions have been revised, evolved, progressed and regressed, but now we know we have four rounds to conclude a seven-event series.
Or we think we know.
Let’s not try to second guess a second wave, instead, let’s be grateful for the breaker that’s building this week. Let’s just climb aboard and ride this one out. There’s no end of talk of the new normal. Right now, there is no normal.
Transiting Helsinki ahead of the hop across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn is ample proof of the fact that we’re a long way from normal. Anybody who’s been around the WRC for a while knows Helsinki airport well enough to know the shops are usually open.
The Nordic Kitchen, ordinarily the best place to catch crews in various states of disrepair on a post-Rally Finland Monday morning, was shut.
Weird. Eerily weird.
Before we get going properly with the week ahead, it’s worth putting on the record what a superb job the Rally Estonia organizers have done in preparing for their WRC debut, four or five years ahead of time, doing so in a couple of months and doing so in the most COVID-complicated of times.
There have definitely been occasions when I’ve questioned the sense in forging ahead with the remainder of this season. Admirable as it is to keep sourcing new rallies, new dates, new itineraries, but wouldn’t it be better to call it quits. Without the resource of Formula 1, maintaining the momentum of a world championship has been incredibly difficult.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Congratulations to the FIA and WRC Promoter for sticking with it. The number of teams and individuals, I have spoken to – and seriously high-level teams – who have told me they’d have been out of business if Estonia wasn’t back this week came as a genuine wake-up call. Not to mention a big heave-ho out of the Ivory Tower’s top-floor window.
But now, let’s focus on the front end of the reason we’re all here. Let’s look at who might win.
It would be ridiculous – not to mention insulting to those around him – to suggest this week’s Rally Estonia is Ott Tänak’s to lose. But he’s surely the stand-out favorite. Big, partisan crowds are always worth a tenth of a second here or there, but there’s more to Tänak’s potential pace than the status as local hero. He’s on top of the car and he knows the roads.
What’s more, I think Tänak’s the man who can deliver the sort of instant intensity of pace Ogier talked about at the top of this story. The defending champ’s ability to take himself away and place himself in the zone where he needs to be is almost second-to-none.
If Tänak finds that zen-like approach to deliver mind-blowing speed almost effortlessly from the first kilometer, this rally will be his. Now more than ever laying down a stage one (actually stage two) marker is vital. Taking six or seven seconds on Saturday morning’s opening 12-miler will put the opposition immediately on the back foot. More than that, it will force them to make a decision: risk all and go up a gear or settle for second.
Thierry Neuville needs a sensible approach here. Second to Tänak would be as good as a win for the Belgian. His eye has to be on Ogier and it’s vital that he finishes in front of the Frenchman if he’s going to dent the 20-point difference between them.
Neuville struggled for pace in South Estonia and the outcome of that event will certainly have knocked his confidence in chasing success on high-speed gravel. He needs to think back to Rally di Alba. Yes, it was asphalt and yes it was in Italy, but he was mighty on that day. This weekend’s about measured mighty and coming out the other side with his title hopes still intact.
Craig Breen’s among the most experienced drivers in Estonia. This will be his fifth start in this part of the world and podiums in Sweden and Finland have demonstrated the Irishman’s penchant for big gears and high speed.
M-Sport Ford WRT
You can never rule out a team with a couple of Finns in on a fast rally. Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen can both be at the races, but they’ll be there without much relevant seat time. Right now, it’s about looking at the bigger picture for M-Sport. The British team’s on a fiscal knife-edge, a fact born out when on-location pre-event testing moves from necessity to nicety.
Put simply, M-Sport is fighting for its very survival right now. That’s not to say the Ford Fiesta WRC doesn’t land in Tartu with some new bits, it does – just not quite as many new bits as had been planned before the telephones in Cockermouth stopped ringing as customers ran out of reasons to buy spares and parts.
Both Lappi and Suninen could be in with a shout of a podium, but they, perhaps more than anybody, will have to wake up well and truly on the money on Saturday morning.
Briton Gus Greensmith needs to take this is another learning event. No doubt, he will have done as much, if not more homework than anybody else, but seat time’s a very valuable commodity right now and getting to the finish has to be priority number one.
Toyota Gazoo Racing
Who? Which one? Come on, what do you think? Naturally, you’d have to say Ogier.
He’s won 48 rounds of the World Rally Championship – one of which involved him driving 73.94mph for 201 miles between the trees. Don’t tell me the Frenchman’s not one for the fast rallies. Finland 2013 tells its own tale. Granted, he’s missed his mojo on the quick stuff in recent seasons, but he’s still among the best of the best.
But what will his approach be. He’s eight points up and the master long-game thinker. Like Neuville, second to Tänak would be as good as a win for him.
What this event will thoroughly test is Tommi Mäkinen’s true desire to maintain a level playing field. What does he do it Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä are nip and tuck going into Sunday’s powerstage?
And I’m not dissing Elfyn Evans, by the way – it would be harsh in the extreme to slow the Welshman down when he’s only eight points down in the title race. And only marginally less so for the 19-year-old Finn who’s 22 behind.
To be perfectly honest, I expect some serious speed from Rovanperä. South Estonia and the testing we’ve seen him doing has shown he’s completely comfortable with the Yaris WRC in the highest of high speed. And where a driver like an Ogier or a Neuville is now maybe just shying away from the absolute balls-out banzai bravery, Rovanperä can still call on plenty of youthful exuberance to keep his foot in and chip another tenth of a second away.
Starting Rally Estonia on the back of a sizable shunt a couple of weeks ago is far from ideal for Evans, but he’s shown on plenty of occasions he’s more than capable of putting that out of his mind. The good thing about that crash (maybe that should be the less bad thing about that crash…) is that this year’s Rally Sweden winner knows exactly what happened. It was his mistake, nothing broke on the car, he nibbled too much and got bitten. It’s happened to everybody.
Move on. That’s precisely what he will do. But… like Ogier, he has to ask himself the question about the bigger picture. A win would be exceptional, but a podium would certainly keep him in the hunt as the season moves into its final three rallies.