Ott Tänak secured his first World Rally Championship victory with Hyundai by winning the first ever Estonian round of the WRC, catapulting himself into title contention.
Craig Breen completed a Hyundai one-two, 22.2 seconds behind Tänak, to cap off one of the most impressive drives of his career to date. He finished ahead of Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier, who maintained his championship lead with third place.
But Tänak – who headed to his home round 24 points adrift of Ogier – is now just 13 points behind with a win and third place on the powerstage.
Elfyn Evans separates the pair in the standings thanks to fourth place and four bonus points in Estonia. Ogier claimed two additional points on the powerstage to hold a lead of nine points over his team-mate.
Hyundai’s is also now just five points of Toyota at the head of the manufacturers’ standings.
“I’m happy to win with Hyundai first time obviously it means a lot. The team has been working so, so hard, I’ve been home sitting on the sofa. Great job guys, we keep pushing,” Tänak said.
“It’s amazing, a great feeling and first Rally Estonia the win is mine so happy for sure.”
Tänak was the man tipped to fly as the WRC returned after a six month coronavirus-enforced hiatus, but it was Ogier and M-Sport’s Esapekka Lappi who shared the lead after Friday night’s opening superspecial stage just outside the Tartu service park.
A slow puncture then allowed for an impressive Kalle Rovanperä to surge into the lead on Saturday morning with a stage win on the first forest test; Tänak 2.8s in arrears.
But Rovanperä then suffered a tire drama of his own as the rear-right bolted onto his Toyota Yaris WRC began to shed itself of tread on the succeeding stage, dropping him to eighth as Tänak hit the front.
The teenager had set himself a goal of a podium for Estonia and on pace alone he was more than up to achieving that; his devastating 5.1s victory on the powerstage a perfect demonstration.
But the delaminated tire on Saturday morning and an error from co-driver Jonne Halttunen before SS10 where he took the radiator guarding plate off the car within the time control hampered him.
This resulted in a one-minute time penalty for the all-Finnish crew and restricted them to fifth after having deposed Evans – who survived a “popped” tire flat out towards the end of SS7 – of fourth place on Saturday’s final stage before the penalty was imposed.
Immune to the drama was Hyundai’s Breen who was among the leading times throughout, scoring two stage wins of his own on Saturday afternoon. Remarkably, Tänak only won one more stage throughout the weekend – three of 17 – but measured his pace superbly to manage the gap that never exceeded 14.6s before the final stage when Breen backed off.
Breen did his stock no harm at all though with an “incredible weekend” that equalled his best finish of second on Rally Sweden 2018, perhaps benefiting from four previous attempts at Rally Estonia.
“I haven’t forgotten how to do it,” he warned. “I can’t wait to do it more and more.”
Six-time world champion Ogier had trailed title rival Thierry Neuville 4.4s on Saturday lunchtime with Neuville fulfilling his pre-event objective of keeping ahead of Ogier and Evans – the two drivers ahead of him in the championship.
However on Saturday afternoon’s opener, Neuville’s Hyundai was lodged out of the ruts that had formed on the stage, ran wide and clouted something solid in the undergrowth, wrecking the suspension.
That paved Ogier’s path clear to take and hold onto third and maintaining an extra-ordinary run of consistency. On the first four rounds of the season, Ogier has now finished in each of the top four placings.
“The podium is a good result, it’s good points for the championship,” Ogier reflected.
While Neuville restarted on Sunday, he set a consistent speed in a bid to save tires for the powerstage as he sought to salvage something from the weekend. But this went wrong too through no fault of his own, as his i20 Coupe WRC developed some sort of power-related technical issue just before the stage.
“Obviously not our weekend, we didn’t deserve this to be honest,” Neuville rued.
It was a costly weekend championship-wise for the Monte Carlo winner, who is now 37 points adrift in the title race with potentially only three rallies remaining.
Neuville wasn’t the only driver to come unstuck in Estonia though. Takamoto Katsuta had been a star of Saturday; the Toyota junior driver holding sixth place that became fifth when Rovanperä was penalized.
However the Japanese star got it wrong on Sunday’s second stage. A mistake on the pre-event recce meant he approached a sweeping right-hander way too vigorously, left the road and rolled his Yaris WRC several times. It cost him what would have been his best ever WRC result.
M-Sport driver Lappi’s weekend was less bruising but failed to hit the same highs after his rally leading performance on Friday night.
An overshoot on Saturday afternoon and a high-speed spin on the rally’s penultimate test characterized what was a trying weekend for the entire team; Lappi losing out to team-mate Teemu Suninen in one of the most unenthusiastic fights in WRC history.
Suninen picked up sixth with Lappi seventh, 12.4s behind.
“Our rally has been very challenging so we have to work a lot,” was Lappi’s assessment.
A catalogue of spins and a stall punctuated what was an average weekend for Gus Greensmith, but the Briton kept his nose clean for the most part to be rewarded with eighth place.
Pierre-Louis Loubet had the measure of Greensmith all weekend on his first WRC event in a 2C Competition Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC. But last year’s WRC2 (now WRC3) champion never saw the end, damaging his steering on Sunday and pulling over just a few corners later.
Citroën pilot Mads Østberg extended his 100% winning record in WRC2 with a third event win from as many starts in his C3 R5.
Hyundai’s Ole Christian Veiby was the early leader before his event unravelled with a collision with a hay bale, a day-ending double puncture on Saturday and then a roll on Sunday, giving Adrien Fourmaux a shot in the lead when Østberg punctured.
But in truth Østberg was the class of the field, finishing almost one minute-and-a-half ahead of M-Sport’s Fourmaux who took his first WRC2 podium.
“It’s really nice to be back and to be honest it’s been a very good weekend,” Østberg said.
“We’ve been right there where we want to be. We have to remember we were first R5 car [on the road] all weekend and the pace has been good all weekend. For sure we have new bits that will come and make us even faster so I am very happy with our progress.”
Nikolay Gryazin was in second heading into the powerstage, 15.3s ahead of Fourmaux, but a puncture dumped him back to fifth behind Fourmaux, Pontus Tidemand and Eyvind Brynildsen.
Oliver Solberg headed to Estonia on top form having taken victory on the similar Rally Liepaja in the European Rally Championship last month, and he made it count with his first ever WRC3 win and ninth place overall – also his first overall WRC points finish.
Solberg, local hero Egon Kaur and triple ERC champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz stole the show in the category, hogging the podium places all weekend.
But nobody could topple Petter’s son, and both Kaur and Kajetanowicz encountered problems. Kaur – who had been second for much of the event – went backwards on Sunday afternoon and slipped to fourth behind Rally Sweden victor Jari Huttunen.
However those positions would become third and second when Kajetanowicz rolled his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo on the final stage.
“It was a fantastic weekend,” said Solberg, who beat Østberg by 38.7s as the top Rally2 car. “Very tough with different conditions all the time but it was good fun and I enjoyed.”
In Junior WRC it was Mārtiņš Sesks who prospered, taking a narrow 14.7s victory over Sami Pajari.
Rally Sweden winner Tom Kristensson had led after the first forest stage but an electrical glitch aboard his Ford Fiesta Rally4 sidelined him on the second.
That left local driver and JWRC debutant Robert Virves free to lead and he did just that, responding to every attack Sesks could throw at him. That was until he picked up a puncture on the fourth to last stage, restricting him to third place.
Ruairi Bell underwent a late co-driver switch after an accident last weekend, bringing British Rally Champion driver Matt Edwards into the fold. The pair were undeterred though, claiming fourth place but four minutes down on winner Sesks.
1 Rovanperä (Toyota) 10m12.43s
2 Evans (Toyota) +5.2s
3 Tänak (Hyundai) +6.1s
4 Ogier (Toyota) +8.0s
5 Breen (Hyundai) +15.1s
6 Suninen (Ford) +21.0s
1 Tänak (Hyundai) 1h59m53.6s
2 Breen (Hyundai) +22.2s
3 Ogier (Toyota) +26.9s
4 Evans (Toyota) +41.9s
5 Rovanperä (Toyota) +1m18.7s
6 Suninen (M-Sport Ford) +2m39.6s
7 Lappi (M-Sport Ford) +2m52.0s
8 Greensmith (M-Sport Ford) +4m53.8s
9 Solberg (Volkswagen) +7m38.6s
10 Østberg (Citroën) +8m17.3s
1 Ogier 79; 2 Evans 70; 3 Tänak 66; 4 Rovanperä 55; 5 Neuville 42; 6 Suninen 34; 7 Lappi 30; 8 Breen 25; 9 Tidemand 8; 10 Loeb 8