Kalle Rovanperä leads Rally Estonia overnight after the opening Tartu superspecial stage, outpacing Hyundai’s Craig Breen by 0.1 seconds with M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen completing the early podium.
Estonia is part of the World Rally Championship calendar for the second time in 2021, and this season kickstarts the second half of the campaign.
Rovanperä has endured a poor run of form of late to languish in sixth in the drivers’ standings, but the Toyota driver was quickest on shakedown earlier on Thursday morning and also topped the times after the short one-mile Tartu test.
He is being tipped to, at the very least challenge, for his maiden World Rally victory, but Rovanperä is refusing to get sucked into his own hype.
“It doesn’t matter what I believe or think about, on Sunday we will see the results but for sure like every rally I will do the best I can,” Rovanperä said.
“But for sure this is one of the rallies where I like to drive and I like to push so hopefully we can fight.”
Breen, who hasn’t driven a World Rally Car on gravel since scoring a superb second place on Rally Estonia last year, was second quickest on the opener as he returns to the WRC for the first time since Croatia in April.
“It’s just a joy to be back again, everything just feels so nice,” he said. “This is real rallying. Not to put down the European championship program, but this is just another level.
“Any day a man is crazy enough to pay me to steer this yoke is a good day!”
Suninen is in an early third spot, 0.6s adrift of the lead and just 0.2s ahead of his M-Sport team-mate Gus Greensmith who’s fourth overall.
Greensmith however shares that position with the three quickest Rally2 cars as Mads Østberg, Jari Huttunen and Alexey Lukyanuk all muscled their less powerful Rally2 machines into the overall picture, just 0.6s slower than the lead.
“I would say the first stage was kind of relief, we finish it now so it was OK,” admitted Suninen. “It was an important rally and we have to prove again what we can do, and that’s my target.”
Home hero, and last year’s winner, Ott Tänak shares eighth overall with Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville; the pair trailing Rovanperä by 0.9s.
Tänak admitted his “target” is to fight the Toyotas while Neuville was similarly bullish: “We need to win for us but also for the team, that’s why we’re here this weekend, we’re going to fight,” he said.
“We have revenge to take from last year as well as last rally in Kenya so hopefully we’re going to have some luck with us.”
World championship leader Sébastien Ogier completes the top 10 after the first Estonian test, 0.3s behind the two eighth-placed Hyundais and 1.2s down on his rally leading team-mate.
Ogier is anticipating a “tough weekend” as “already from here it’s very slippery”.
“Opening the road I have no idea what I can achieve but as always I’ll give everything I have and we’ll find out what’s possible,” he added.
Emil Lindholm completes the top 10 in his Toksport Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, 0.1s ahead of WRC3 rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz and another 0.1s ahead of his team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen who’s third in WRC2.
Takamoto Katsuta put on a spectacular show with a flamboyant run on the opening test of Rally Estonia, hanging the rear of his Yaris WRC wide on a couple of the sweeping hairpin bends of Tartu.
“For sure I overdrive and was hanging around everywhere but all good, tomorrow is going to be more fun,” he said, after setting the 15th fastest time.
Elfyn Evans, starting his 100th WRC event, was a slightly disappointing 3.2s adrift of the ultimate pace and languishes down in 19th. He beat Pierre-Louis Loubet, who confessed he was “very cautious” because he “didn’t want to do anything stupid,” by 0.1s.
Lukyanuk leads WRC3 thanks to his storming opening stage time ahead of Emil Lindholm and Kajetan Kajetanowicz. Andreas Mikkelsen is third in WRC2 behind the two joint leaders.
Leading positions after SS1
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota)
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +0.1s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +0.4s
4= Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +0.6s
4= Jari Huttunen/Mikko Lukka (Hyundai) +0.6s
4= Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +0.6s
4= Alexey Lukyanuk/Yaroslav Federov (Škoda) +0.6s
8= Ott Tänak/ Martin Järveoja (Hyundai)+0.9s
8= Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +0.9s
10 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota)+1.2s