Kalle Rovanperä is on the brink of history as he leads Rally Estonia after Saturday’s action, firmly on course to claim his first ever World Rally Championship victory.
The Toyota driver had been embroiled in a tasty fight with Hyundai’s Craig Breen throughout Friday, but stormed clear on Saturday – largely thanks to a devastating run on Saturday morning’s first stage – to build a seemingly unassailable cushion of 50.7 seconds.
Should Rovanperä hold onto first position through Sunday’s six stages, he would become the youngest victor in WRC history.
“For sure it was a really great day,” he said.
“Yesterday the gaps were small and this day we could make them much bigger. Really difficult to maintain the gap but it’s easier for tomorrow.”
The short one-mile Tartu stage – that burst the rally into life on Thursday evening – brought the curtain down on the third leg of the rally, and it was won by Sébastien Ogier who claimed his first stage win of the weekend in the process.
But the old adage of ‘you can’t win the rally, but you can lose it’ on a spectator-friendly stage almost rang true for Breen, who ran over a road-side rock with the front-right of his i20 Coupe WRC.
It only cost him a few seconds, but it was a heart-in-mouth moment he could have done without after what was an immaculate day up until that point.
Team-mate Thierry Neuville was second quickest on SS18 and is on course for his fifth third place finish from seven WRC rounds in 2021, as he holds a 17.9s advantage over championship leader Ogier.
Neuville had been under five seconds ahead of Ogier before the afternoon but has extended that gap into a seemingly comfortable position, although he did lose 0.7s to Ogier on the final stage of the day.
“It was a positive day for us, we had a good clean rhythm in the car and able to step by step catch a little bit from Ogier,” Neuville said.
“We need to keep clear of any mistakes and issues and try to bring back a good position for the team.”
Despite losing ground to Neuville’s Hyundai, Ogier was still happy with his day because he has his team-mate Elfyn Evans 23.4s behind him in fifth.
“The main target is to fight for the championship and I’m not fighting the championship with Thierry at the moment I’m fighting with Elfyn,” Ogier pointed out.
“So the target is behind. All good.”
Evans added: “Not the best weekend so far but obviously we’re trying to try as much as we can and see what’s possible.”
M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen ends Saturday in sixth spot, 1m18.2s ahead of Hyundai 2C Competition driver Pierre-Louis Loubet. It’s been a tricky rally for Suninen, leaving him unpleased with his performance so far this weekend.
“Yesterday some technical issues and my mistake with the puncture so can’t be satisfied with this rally,” he commented.
His team-mate Gus Greensmith spent Saturday as first car on the road but ran into a variety of problems including a suspected differential problem on the first stage out of service.
“Tough, that’s about it really,” he said in summary of his day. “Go again tomorrow.”
Ott Tänak was another retiree restarting on Saturday but had a more profound effect on proceedings than Greensmith did.
Tänak won five of the day’s eight stages to prove what could have been had he not bowed out of the contest with three punctures on two of the Friday stages.
“Yeah all OK today,” Tänak said. “If we’re slow it’s boring, so at least we have something interesting.”
Andreas Mikkelsen leads WRC2 ahead of Sunday, immune from the drama that befell some of his rivals.
“It’s been a really tough day, the second loop has been a warzone,” he said. “But we managed to stay away from the biggest trouble and had a clean drive.
“We have some margin for tomorrow but full focus, it’s not finished before it’s finished.”
Mikkelsen is ninth overall, nearly a minute behind WRC3 leader Alexey Lukyanuk who’s controlled the healthy class margin he constructed for himself with blistering pace on Friday and was then joint sixth fastest on SS18.
The final position in the top 10 is hotly contested between Mads Østberg, Marco Bulacia and Adrien Fourmaux – a battle that is also for second, third and fourth place in WRC2.
Currently it’s advantage Østberg, but only by 1.9s over Bulacia with Fourmaux another 4.7s back.
Fourmaux dropped a couple of seconds with a lairy moment on the final stage, running wide and wiping out a sponsor’s banner with a front-right puncture.
Sami Pajari continues to lead the Junior WRC class, clutching onto a 38.2s lead over Martin Koči.
The real contest of the day has been between Koči and Jon Armstrong however. Armstrong lurks just one second behind Koči ahead of Sunday’s action, gnawing 0.8s back from him on the Tartu superspecial.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 1m41.9s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +0.7s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +1.3s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +1.3s
5 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +1.8s
5 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +2.3s
Leading positions after SS18
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen 2h17m46.8s
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +50.7s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +1m20.9s
4 Ogier/Ingrassia +1m38.8s
5 Evans/Martin +2m02.2s
6 Suninen/Markkula +6m14.3s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Florian Haut-Labourdette (Hyundai) +7m32.5s
8 Alexey Lukyanuk/Yaroslav Fedorov (Škoda) +8m15.9s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Fløene (Škoda) +9m15.1s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +9m41.0s