Kalle Rovanperä has won his first ever World Rally Championship event, defeating Craig Breen to take victory on Rally Estonia as Thierry Neuville rounded out the podium.
Rovanperä won by 59.9 seconds – the largest winning margin of the season – to reverse a run of poor form and results and hand Toyota its sixth victory from seven starts in 2021.
It was a result of historical significance as Rovanperä usurps his team principal Jari-Matti Latvala as the youngest ever winner of a world rally.
In doing so, he became the first new WRC winner since Elfyn Evans won Rally GB four years ago and the Rovanperäs became the second family to spawn two WRC winners. Kalle’s father, Harri, was a one-time winner in the WRC with Peugeot, winning Rally Sweden in 2001.
Despite finishing off the podium for just the second time this season, Sébastien Ogier still extended his championship lead over Elfyn Evans to 37 points as Evans could only finish fifth, one spot behind Ogier.
Neuville is 52 points back in third with Rovanperä up to fourth as Estonian home hero Ott Tänak faltered and could only chalk up five points from the powerstage win. He’s a massive 74 points adrift of Ogier, and has 74 points to his name.
Toyota has also consolidated its position in the manufacturers’ standings, extending its points lead over Hyundai.
Tänak was the man tipped for victory, closely followed by Rovanperä, given the pair’s form on high-speed rallies.
Indeed, Hyundai’s Tänak did come to the fore early on, opening up a slender lead over team-mate Breen after the first forest test.
However things soon unravelled as Tänak collected a front-right puncture on SS3 and was dumped down to seventh. A gutsy comeback drive looked to be on the cards, but in his haste to make up time, Tänak faltered and ran wide on a tightening right-hander.
His Hyundai fell off the road and into a field, but there was a drop down from the road into the grass and that, coupled to the speed at which Tänak approached the scene, punctured two further tires and left him out for the day.
With Tänak gone, the battle became a two-way affair between Breen and the other pre-event favorite Rovanperä. After the first leg, just 8.5s split the two drivers with third-placed Neuville over 40s behind.
The battle was quickly defused however as Rovanperä strung together a simply masterful run on Saturday morning’s opener, going over 10s quicker than anybody and 14.3s faster than Breen to seize control of the contest.
From there, both drivers concentrated on eradicating errors and Rovanperä steamed home to win a world rally at the 14th attempt in the top class. There were emotional scenes at the finish as Kalle was joined by his father Harri.
“It has been a difficult season and it’s really nice to get it [this win] in Estonia, it’s almost a home rally for me now,” said Rovanperä.
“We proved that the pace is there and now we bring it home it’s really good.”
Second place for Breen was a repeat performance from Estonia last year, which incidentally was his last WRC appearance on gravel.
“It’s been a nice weekend, I’ve enjoyed it immensely from start to finish,” he said.
“I would just like that extra time to be able to go that extra one or 2% I know is within us, but I’m pleased.”
Neuville’s event suffered a couple of hiccups – a puncture on Friday morning and then a 10s penalty for starting the penultimate stage a minute too late. But on the whole, Estonia was a good event for him as he netted his fifth third-place finish of the season.
The same could be said for Ogier who would’ve left Estonia as the championship leader regardless of what happened on the rally, such was his pre-event points advantage.
The seven-time champion ended the rally frustrated however after a small powerstage moment where he got bogged down on the outside of a corner, bouncing out of the ruts.
“I really fight but it’s not really driving actually, it’s just a fight,” he said. “Really s***** conditions it’s just like driving a train actually. Happy to finish.”
Fifth place for Evans was however less positive. The Portugal winner struggled to feel completely at one with his car against everyone else on the high-speed stages and made what he called a “stupid” mistake on Friday morning when he overshot a junction and then stalled his Toyota.
He finished over two minutes down on his rally-winning team-mate – failing to win a stage for the first time since Rally México 2020 – but four minutes clear of M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen.
Estonia was a trying weekend for the semi-works squad that was dogged with reliability troubles. Gus Greensmith was the worst affected, retiring on Friday morning with an engine problem. He had been lying a promising fifth before the issues kicked in.
Suninen wasn’t immune to some niggles either, but his troubles were less severe, and he was able to salvage sixth; a rear-left puncture on Friday his biggest time consumer.
There was a heart-stopping moment for Suninen on the powerstage though as he bounced out the ruts, nosed his Fiesta WRC of the road next to a rock and took a while to reverse it back onto the stage.
“On the ruts I’m struggling and somehow I got to the inside of the ruts. The car is here, it was a difficult weekend,” Suninen said.
Pierre-Louis Loubet made it to the end of an event for the first time this season, therefore registering his first championship points of 2021 as he equalled his career best WRC finish of seventh.
Loubet skipped Safari Rally Kenya in order to mentally reset and was under strict instructions simply to make the final time control in his 2C Competition-run Hyundai. He did that, but it wasn’t an easy ride doing so.
Toyota’s junior driver Takamoto Katsuta suffered his first retirement of the season when an aggressive landing over a jump left co-driver Dan Barritt in some pain.
The duo had sneakily made their way up to third overall but had to pull out because of Barritt’s discomfort. He was taken to a local hospital for checks and was given the all clear but advised to rest, meaning Katsuta’s Rally Estonia would only last four stages.
The demise of Katsuta, Tänak and Greensmith allowed the leading Rally2 cars to fill up the bottom three places in the top 10.
European Rally Champion Alexey Lukyanuk topped the class and scored his first-ever world championship points with eighth overall; the cherry on top of a dominant WRC3 performance. His powerstage was full of drama as he rolled but got to the finish, albeit with front-end damage and a knocked-off rear-right wheel.
Driving a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo instead of the usual Citroën C3 Rally2 he pilots in the ERC, Lukyanuk still swept all before him over the rally, winning the first 21 of 24 stages in the category.
Sensing his job was done, he backed off prior to the powerstage but still defeated his closest rival – Kajetan Kajatanowicz – by over three minutes.
The leading WRC2 cars filtered in behind Lukyanuk on the leaderboard, with Andreas Mikkelsen sealing ninth. He beat Mads Østberg by 16.7s to record his first WRC2 win since the Monte Carlo Rally six months ago.
“We came into this rally really well prepared so I’m really happy to give the team this victory it really deserves,” Mikkelsen said.
“Maximum powerstage points as well so it couldn’t be better, really looking forward to having a beer with the guys now.”
Østberg endured a trying weekend in which he suffered various tire, brake and handling issues with his Citroën. Marco Bulacia completed the podium after a strong final day in which he got the better of M-Sport’s highly rated pilot Adrien Fourmaux.
Nikolay Gryazin, Jari Huttunen and American Sean Johnston all crashed out while Oliver Solberg suffered an engine failure as a result of a heavy landing in his Hyundai i20 R5.
Sami Pajari became the third different in Junior WRC from as many rounds after a strong performance in his Ford Fiesta Rally4.
Despite winning stages on every single Junior WRC round he has started, this was Pajari’s first ever category victory and he claimed it by 24.1s over Jon Armstrong and Martin Koči.
Armstrong had hoped to challenge Pajari for the lead after Friday but fell into the clutches of Koči, losing position to him overnight before claiming it back and sealing it on Sunday. Mārtiņš Sesks eventually finished third.
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 5m52.268s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +2.717s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +3.555s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +4.364s
5 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +9.424s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +10.869s
Final positions after SS24
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen 2h51m29.1s
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +59.9s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +1m12.4s
4 Ogier/Ingrassia +1m24.0s
5 Evans/Martin +2m07.1s
6 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +7m07.3s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Florian Haut-Labourdette (Hyundai) +8m48.3s
8 Alexey Lukyanuk/Yaroslav Fedorov (Škoda) +10m16.1s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (Škoda) +10m29.9s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +10m46.6s
1 Ogier 148 2 Evans 111 3 Neuville 96 4 Rovanperä 82 5 Tänak 74 6 Takamoto Katsuta 66 7 Breen 42 8 Gus Greensmith 34 9 Dani Sordo 31 10 Adrien Fourmaux 30
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 315 2 Hyundai Motorsport 256 3 M-Sport Ford 125 4 Hyundai 2C Competition 36