Runaway WRC points leader Kalle Rovanpera snatched a surprise Rally Estonia lead after a dramatic finale to Friday’s opening leg derailed his Toyota teammate and day-long pacesetter Elfyn Evans.
Evans started the day in scintillating form, winning the first five special stages in dry conditions to build a lead of almost 20s over fellow GR Yaris Rally1 driver and 2021 Rally Estonia winner Rovanpera. But the 21-year-old phenom almost halved the deficit in the next two tests as intermittent showers provided a different challenge ahead of the closing 4.16-mile Vastsemoisa special stage.
With heavy rain beginning to fall for the finale, Rovanpera enjoyed the best of the conditions before the fast, flowing stage progressively deteriorated. His FIA World Rally Championship points lead meant he was running as first car on the stage — perfect timing before things got really ugly — but for those behind him, the sandy gravel turned to treacherous mud and ruts filled with water.
Making the most of it, Rovanpera charged to a third consecutive fastest time by almost 15s, while Evans slid off the slimy road into some bushes near the start. The Welshman continued, but conceded more than 22s to the flying Finn, turning his hard-earned lead into a 11.7s overnight deficit.
“I was not expecting to lead after the morning,” Rovanpera admitted. “We did a good job opening the road and also in the afternoon we had good times. Of course, the weather on the last stage was on our side — we gained when the others got the rain.”
Evans shed more light on a lucky escape, noting: “The conditions were pretty horrific and lots of aquaplaning at the start of the stage and we had a [sizable] ‘moment.’ Let’s say I was a bit more careful after that… It was a bit of a surprise the conditions were so bad at the start.”
Home hero Ott Tanak, who’d been expected to take the fight to Rovanpera, wrestled with handling problems in his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 all day. When a heater pipe directed onto his windshield came loose in the Vastsemoisa finale, the glass quickly misted and he, too, left the road. The 2020 Rally Estonia winner recovered to end the leg 44.3s off the lead in third and certainly not out of contention.
Brake problems hindered Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi all morning. But despite being one of three front-runners to go off the road at the same corner on the final stage, he brought his GR Yaris home fourth, 21.6s behind Tanak.
A subdued Thierry Neuville was fifth in another factory Hyundai. The Belgian also fought handling difficulties and could not defend against Lappi during the afternoon after being fourth on the leaderboard at the midpoint. He ended 7.0s behind the Finn.
Best of the M-Sport Ford contingent, Adrien Fourmaux was almost a minute adrift in sixth, despite overshooting a penultimate stage corner in his Puma Rally1 when his windshield wipers failed. He climbed a place when teammate and fellow Frenchman Pierre-Louis Loubet rolled at the final stage’s bogey corner and lost two minutes, plunging to ninth overall.
Toyota development driver Takamoto Katsuta was seventh in another GR Yaris, steadily rebuilding confidence after rolling in Thursday’s shakedown, while Gus Greensmith, another victim of “that” corner, was eighth in his Puma.
Overnight leader Craig Breen was Friday’s big casualty. The Irishman was fourth until sliding off the road this morning and hitting a concrete post buried in the grass, dashing M-Sport Ford’s podium hopes. The impact broke his Puma’s left-front suspension and he retired.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Andreas Mikkelsen ended the opening leg 12.1s clear of his nearest chaser — earning most of that advantage in the wet and wild final Vastsemoisa stage.
The reigning WRC2 champ had enjoyed a close battle with his Toksport Skoda teammate Emil Lindholm. Their Fabia Evos were split by just tenths of seconds throughout the afternoon, until a front-left puncture on the penultimate stage cost Lindholm almost one minute. That put Mikkelsen back in the lead, but with Teemu Suninen’s Hyundai i20 N Rally2 just 1.7s behind.
With Vastsemoisa turning into a mud-filled ice rink, Mikkelsen saw it as an opportunity to make a move. The Norwegian blitzed Suninen by 10.2s over the treacherous 4.16-mile test, stretching his lead over the Finn into double figures overnight.
Saturday’s second leg is centered around the ski resort of Otepaa. It follows a similar format to Friday, with two loops of four special stages driven morning and afternoon, separated by a single service. The day wraps up with an evening rerun of Thursday’s short, sharp 1.03-mile test in host city Tartu. The nine stages add up to 59.28 miles, and based on Friday’s late drama, anything could happen.
WRC Rally Estonia, leading positions after Day One, SS9
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h16m19.7s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +11.7s
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +44.3s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m05.9s
5 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m12.9s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2m08.1s
7 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m10.9s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2m29.4s
9 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +3m59.0s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Erikssen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2 leader) +4m57.4s
Check out WRC.com, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.