Kalle Rovanperä laid early claim to Estonia’s king of speed title on Friday by winning six of the eight special stages to lead the country’s FIA World Rally Championship encounter.
The 20-year-old Finn, who now lives in the Baltic country, ended Rally Estonia’s first full day with an 8.5sec advantage over Craig Breen after enthralling action over blisteringly fast gravel roads south of second city Tartu.
Both men are hunting their maiden WRC win and such was the ferocity of their duel that the experienced Thierry Neuville and seven-time world champion Sébastien Ogier were trailing almost a minute adrift.
Rovanperä, who led after Thursday night’s short curtain-raising test, won three of this morning’s stages in his Toyota Yaris. He added three more fastest times this afternoon but could not break free from Breen’s shackles.
Breen led briefly this morning. He won one stage, tied with Rovanperä in another and was second in six tests in his Hyundai i20.
The heat of the battle was matched by air temperatures hovering just below 30°C, but pre-event favourite and Estonian hero Ott Tänak was left feeling cold.
He won the opening Arula test to relegate Rovanperä from top spot but plunged to seventh after a front right puncture in the following Otepää. Worse was to come in the next stage.
“I went wide in a corner and basically I went on the field and during that I knocked off two tyres. I had another two punctures and obviously we had no spares anymore and it was not possible to continue,” explained Tänak, who began the loop with just one spare wheel.
Neuville and Ogier were left to scrap over third. Neuville lost time with a rear left puncture while the championship leader drove superbly to minimise the handicap of opening the soft and sandy roads, where grip was reduced compared to those further back.
They traded positions before Neuville moved ahead in the penultimate stage to finish 6.0sec in front and 53.4sec off the lead.
Elfyn Evans twice overshot junctions. He never recovered the time lost to end 15.7sec adrift of team-mate Ogier and nearly two minutes clear of Teemu Suninen’s Ford Fiesta. A rear left puncture and a suspected water pump issue delayed the Finn.
Pierre-Louis Loubet was seventh in an i20 WRC. FIA WRC3 leader and reigning European champion Alexey Lukyanuk, FIA WRC2 pace-setter Andreas Mikkelsen (Toksport WRT) and Lukyanuk’s class contender Emil Lindholm completed the leaderboard.
Takamoto Katsuta retired his Yaris from third after co-driver Dan Barritt suffered a back injury after a heavy landing over jump. Gus Greensmith exited after stopping several times with a technical issue which affected the power from his Fiesta’s engine.
Saturday brings four challenging new stages for the longest leg of the event, containing 132.18km of action. Identical loops north and south of Tartu are driven morning and afternoon before the day wraps up with an evening re-run of Thursday’s short city test.
In the FIA Junior WRC Championship, Sami Pajari holds a 12.9 second lead to Jon Armstrong overnight, with Martin Koci in third.
Image: K. Rovanperä/J. Halttunen (DPPI Media / N. Katikis)