Runaway FIA World Rally Championship points leader Kalle Rovanpera is targeting his fifth win of the season on the super-fast gravel stages of Rally Estonia, but local hero Ott Tanak (pictured above) is on a mission to end his winning ways in front of his massive home support.
This is the third year that the Tartu-based event has been part of the WRC, with the duo taking a win each in the two previous runnings. Hyundai’s Tanak dominated in 2020, while Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Rovanpera earned his first career WRC victory on last year’s event — the then-20-year-old Finn rewriting the record books as the youngest winner in the championship’s 50-year history.
The pace on the 24 special stages around host city Tartu will be flat-out from the start of the July 14-17 event, with average speeds over the 195 competitive miles expected to top 75mph between the Baltic birch trees. Multiple high-speed jumps on the undulating tests add to the spectacle, while further reducing any margin for error.
Rovanpera leads the championship by 65 points, having won four of the first six rallies as the season approaches its second half. With a maximum of 30 points available in each of the seven remaining rallies, it’s a comfortable margin, but the now-21-year-old phenom isn’t thinking of anything but victory in Estonia in his quest to become the youngest WRC champion.
“I think this one and [the following event in] Finland are important events for us,” says Rovanpera, who calls Estonia’s capital Tallinn home. “We know we can do a good job on those so of course we try to go for the maximum points that we can, and after that it will help us even more for the rest of the year.
“Of course it’s going to be nice for me to go back to Rally Estonia,” he adds. “Winning there last year was a great moment and it was a really strong weekend for us. This year we are in a different situation leading the championship and so we will be first car on the road, but hopefully we can do another good result there.”
Joining Rovanpera in a four-car Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 line-up are Welshman Elfyn Evans and Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta, with another Finn, Esapekka Lappi, resuming his partial program in place of eight-time and reigning WRC champ Sebastien Ogier, who’s elected to miss Estonia as he concentrates on his debut FIA World Endurance Championship season.
Katsuta didn’t help his prospects when he rolled his Yaris during Thursday’s Shakedown test stage, damaging the front end. But the car is expected to be repaired in time for a one-off, 1.03-mile, curtain-raising stage on Thursday evening.
Hyundai Motorsport’s hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of Tanak. Indeed, his teammate Thierry Neuville, who’s currently second in WRC points, believes the intensity of the Rovanpera-Tanak duel will see the rest of the field fighting over third.
“We know Ott and Kalle are going to be flying all weekend, same as last year,” says Neuville. “The target for me has to be finishing right behind them.”
For Tanak, who earned Hyundai’s only win of the WRC’s all-new hybrid era in the scorching heat of June’s Rally Italy Sardinia, another home success will mean pushing to the max right from the start in his i20N Rally1.
“We need to make sure we extract all the performance and speed we can from the car,” says the 2019 WRC champ. “It will be a big challenge and we have to be fast out of the box.”
Oliver Solberg completes a three-car Hyundai entry as he continues to gain experience in the WRC’s headlining Rally1 machines.
Over at M-Sport Ford, Craig Breen is looking to take the fight to Rovanpera and Tanak and earn a long-awaited first WRC win, having finished second in 2020 and ’21 for Hyundai. He leads a four-car Puma Rally 1 attack alongside Gus Greensmith and French duo Pierre-Louis Loubet and Adrien Fourmaux.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champ Andreas Mikkelsen will be looking to put his defense back on track. The Toksport Skoda Fabia Rally2 Evo driver needs a strong result if he’s to keep his title hopes afloat after engine problems sidelined him in Portugal and Italy. The Norwegian had been leading both rallies before the retirements.
Drivers in WRC2 can count their best six results from seven starts. That means, regardless of how the remainder of the season plays out, the Norwegian driver will have to include at least one non-score in his final total.
Mikklesen faces tough opposition in Estonia, including WRC2 points leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz in another Skoda, Jari Huttunen in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta Rally2, and Teemu Suninen and former WRC rally winner Hayden Paddon in Hyundai i20 N Rally2 machines.
Fresh from a first WRC2 podium on last month’s Safari Rally Kenya, the American duo of Sean Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani bring their Sainteloc Citroen C3 to an event that ended in a huge crash and roll last year. With momentum building, they’ll be looking to put that behind them on the kind of high-speed stages that Johnston relishes.
Rally Estonia starts in Tartu on Thursday evening with the curtain-raising, one-mile ERM stage, before Friday’s eight stages and 86.5 competitive miles turn up the heat. Saturday covers nine more stages and 59.3 competitive miles, followed by six stages and 48.48 competitive miles on Sunday, including the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage to end the action.
The Estonian speedfest marks the first of two back-to-back high-speed gravel tests for the hybrid-powered Rally1 cars and is followed by Rally Finland next month (Aug. 4-7).
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