If local hero Kalle Rovanpera had been expecting to celebrate his 21st birthday with a day one lead on WRC Rally Finland, Craig Breen and Ott Tanak provided a high-speed reality check after a dominant 1-2 performance for Hyundai.
The buildup to the fastest rally on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar had been all about the series’ newest “Flying Finn,” factory Toyota Yaris WRC driver Rovanpera. After winning the previous two gravel rallies, in Estonia and Greece, could he make it three in a row on the super-quick special stages around his home town of Jyvaskyla?
Short answer after day one’s six special stages and 55.56 competitive miles? It’s going to be tough.
Tanak and Breen took two stage wins apiece, their factory Hyundai i20 Coupe WRCs dialed in for the fast, flowing stages as Rovanpera struggled with the handling of his Yaris.
Estonian Tanak led from the second stage to the penultimate test, edging Irishman Breen by just 1.5sec. But a mighty effort by Breen in the dark of the day’s sixth and final stage, 12.27-mile Oittila, gave him a 2.8sec lead in the intra-team duel heading into Saturday’s nine special stages and 94.42 competitive miles.
“That was just amazing,” said an elated Breen after the day’s final stage. “I always wondered what Finland would be like in the dark, and it’s incredible! Just incredible!”
“It was a surprisingly good day,” added Tanak. “I never even expected to be in a battle with the Toyotas. But this is just the introduction – tomorrow’s the big day.”
Tanak came to Finland as the two-time and reigning winner of an event that didn’t run in 2020 due to COVID, but had played down his chances of a three-peat after an up-and-down second season with Hyundai. Breen, meanwhile, is running only a limited schedule with Hyundai, and could have been expected to need the first day to dial himself in.
In contrast, Rovanpera was the driver bringing the loose-surface momentum, and his Gazoo Racing Toyota team, based just outside Jyvaskyla, has never been beaten on its home ground since returning to the WRC in 2017.
But at day’s end, the birthday boy wasn’t even the fastest Finn in a Toyota. That honor went to 2017 Finland winner Esapekka Lappi, whose charge to fourth in a privately-entered Yaris left him 0.6sec behind third-placed Elfyn Evans in the best of the factory Toyotas and 1.2sec ahead of a frustrated Rovanpera.
Fourth fastest time in the dark of Oittila left Rovanpera 7.4sec behind leader Breen at day’s end and hoping for a better feel from his Yaris on a second leg that will be maximum attack from the start for the leaders.
“I was definitely struggling a little with grip,” said Rovanpera (below). “From the testing, I didn’t really come up with a good setup. And in the dark it was difficult and I didn’t want to push too hard with the car not so good. Tomorrow I need to do a lot more than this.”
WRC points leader Sebastien Ogier, who came to Finland with a chance of wrapping up his eight title with two rallies to spare, was never a factor on the opening stages. The Frenchman finished the day seventh overall in his Yaris, 2.3sec back on Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, but 33.6sec down on the rally leader.
“It hasn’t been a very strong day for us,” shrugged Ogier. “We did what we could, but we didn’t have any pace. We’ll see tomorrow if we can make any progress.”
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta won the all-asphalt 1.44-mile opener in Jyvaskyla, but lost time and confidence after a massive moment on the first of the gravel stages to finish the day in eight, 46.9sec off the lead. M-Sport Ford duo Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux completed the top 10, well adrift of the sharp end after a day fighting the handling of their Fiesta WRCs.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Finn Teemu Suninen held top spot in his Volkswagen Polo GTi after early pacesetter Mads Ostberg was distracted by a smell of burning in his Citroen C3 on the day’s final stage.
“I could smell fire in the car, so I spent more time looking in my mirror to see if I could see any flames than looking forward,” said Ostberg. “We’ll see what it was and we’ll go again tomorrow.”
WRC Rally Finland, leading positions after Day One, SS6
1 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 43m51.3s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2.8s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC) +6.1s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +6.7s
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Halttunen (Toyota Yaris WRC) +7.9s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +31.3s
7 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC) +33.6s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota Yaris WRC) +46.9s
9 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m20.6s
10 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m48.9s