Rally Estonia was an intriguing instalment of World Rally Championship action.
In many ways it was a classic, with such a domineering performance from the victor, a breathless scrap for third and a final-stage position change for sixth.
But in plenty of other respects it never really got going – only two drivers won stages all weekend and one of the obvious victory contenders was out of the equation before the rally even kicked off.
Here’s what we learned from Rally Estonia 2023:
Only Rovanperä can stop Rovanperä
With Kalle Rovanperä holding a 41-point lead heading into the weekend, things weren’t looking too rosy for anybody wishing for a prolonged title fight.
With a 55-point advantage after the weekend, those hopes are now very bleak for the neutral and Rovanperä’s rivals.
The reigning world champion has made a habit of stunning us all and rewriting the history books in the past 18 months, but what he produced last weekend really was something very special.
He didn’t really have a right to be leading after a full day of running first on the road, but once relieved of that responsibility he won every single stage thereafter. Every single one across Saturday and Sunday. All 13 of them.
In this sort of form, Rovanperä is in a class of one.
And the terrifying thing for the rest is it all looked so easy. Just like last year, it once again seems that the only thing that can stop Rovanperä winning the championship is himself.
Hyundai’s made real fast-rally progress
A lot has been made of Thierry Neuville’s lack of performance on high-speed gravel rallies such as Finland and Estonia – not least by the man himself who has been vocal in saying they’re not events that tend to suit him.
You wouldn’t have known it last weekend.
Neuville was the fastest Hyundai driver on merit in Estonia (just about quicker than a still on-form Esapekka Lappi, which was a surprise) and he and the i20 N Rally1 were the closest challengers to Rovanperä’s Toyota.
There was talk of a positive pre-event test and it proved accurate for the rally – the cohesion between Neuville and Lappi helping bring the i20 forward and to a place where Neuville could fight on events he assumed he couldn’t.
More still needs to be found to get on tabs with the world champions, but this was a very positive building block for Hyundai.
Lady luck turns on the other M-Sport driver
Up until Estonia, Pierre-Louis Loubet’s season had been a tale of improving speed but small errors with big consequences, and a wretched run of fortune for good measure.
However in Estonia he was free of any bad luck and turned in an encouraging performance – showing impressive steel to snatch sixth place back from Takamoto Katsuta on the final stage, having lost it on the penultimate test.
But M-Sport Ford wasn’t free of any turbulence, as instead it was star driver Ott Tänak who didn’t get the rub of the green.
Something going wrong in his engine was bad enough, but that it was a brand-new unit, and it went wrong after pre-event scrutineering, was just painful. The unit had to be swapped, and Tänak was therefore given a five-minute time penalty.
Unable to fight before he’d even started the rally, we’ll never truly know what Tänak could have achieved at home this year. But his speed on the Friday when he was putting it all on the line was at least sensational to watch.
Suninen’s ready for a Rally1 career
It was quite fitting that Teemu Suninen should return to the top class of the world championship in Estonia, exactly two years on from where it all ended with M-Sport Ford.
Yes he did Ypres afterwards, but Estonia proved to be his last event in the World Rally Car, and the Finn looked lost. Making his debut in Hyundai’s Rally1 machine, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark.
Suninen looked rejuvenated, reinvented and ready for more opportunities however and whenever they should come.
He stuck to his game plan beautifully last weekend. Fast but not taking risks, Suninen proved both that he is ready to be a diligent team player – accepting that his role wasn’t to go out and steal a podium for Hyundai – and that he can also drive quickly without fault.
But above else he just looked happy – completely at ease with himself. The frustrated character we always used to see at stage ends was gone in Estonia, replaced by a man relishing his return and prepared to do it all again when the WRC reaches his home turf.
Katsuta’s suffering a confidence crisis
The world appeared to be at Takamoto Katsuta’s feet as he headed into 2023.
Coming off of a superb season with a great run of consistency and two more podiums to his name, and a chance to drive for Toyota’s main manufacturer concern for half the season in his pocket, the only way was up.
Except it’s all gone down.
What Katsuta needed in Estonia was a pacey and trouble-free run to re-establish a solid baseline from which he could build on going forwards.
Unfortunately, he got neither – although the trouble wasn’t his fault. That strange electrical issue and intercom problem on Saturday has still gone unexplained.
But performance-wise Katsuta wasn’t where anybody expected him to be – slowest of all the Rally1 drivers.
Fingers crossed he can figure it out in Finland and return to showing the performance level everyone knows he is capable of.
Mikkelsen’s the WRC2 dangerman
Oliver Solberg, Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux were the three names everyone talked about as the expected heavy-hitters in WRC2 this year, having dropped down from the Rally1 category.
All three, to varying degrees, have strutted their stuff and are mounting serious title threats. Yohan Rossel has elevated himself into play too.
But on a weekend where Solberg’s challenge crumbled with an incident while leading that broke a damper, another WRC refugee emerged from the shadows as perhaps the real man to beat.
Not sure if he was able to mount a campaign this season – and technically still not sure as only next week’s Rally Finland is absolutely confirmed – Mikkelsen wasn’t really on the radar. But that’s certainly not the case now.
Another win in Estonia (his third there in a row) was also Mikkelsen’s second in succession this season, and third podium from three starts. He’s got a disturbing handicap in not being able to contest seven rallies (only six) so therefore can’t afford any sort of bad result, but once again Mikkelsen mastered the balance between driving fast but doing so safely.
He’s now up to second in the championship with one fewer start than Rossel, two less than Solberg and the same as Greensmith but seven more points on the board.
A real threat indeed.