The WRC, which barely met the championship criteria with 7 rallies last year, plans to host a total of 12 rallies this year, despite Sweden, Chile, and England being canceled. It's halfway through the season after the 6th Safari Rally that took place last month.
The stage of Round 7, which starts the second half, is Estonia, one of the three Baltic countries and the hometown of Ott Tanak of Hyundai Motorsport. After entering the WRC amidst the chaos last year, Rally Estonia is now well established. Last year, it was held with 17 SSs shortened to 232.64km, but this year, the full course of 319.38km (total travel distance 1,253.15km) revealed the true charm of Estonia.
Rally Estonia started in 2010 as part of the National Rally Championship in Estonia. From 2014 to 2016, it grew into one of the European Rally Championships (ERC) and then devoted itself to preparations for the WRC. The Estonian driver Tanak, who has become a star, drew a huge crowd. Originally, Estonia was going to hold the WRC Promotional Rally in 2020; and as a new country to be added to the WRC, it would have to hold a demonstration race before the event, but this was not possible due to excessive registration fees. However, due to Covid-19, Estonia managed to join WRC, and the country became the 33rd to host WRC. Rally Estonia is familiar among fans because the works team has been participating in preparation for Rally Finland.
Estonia was a member of the Soviet Union for a long time and was shrouded in an iron curtain. It is less than half the size of South Korea, and it has a population of only 1.31 million as of 2018, and there is no single automaker; But in the world of rallying, it is by no means a small country. The country is home to famous rally drivers Markko Martin and Ott Tanak.
The Rally Headquarters and Service Park are located near the National Museum in Tartu, Estonia's second-largest city. Driving fast on a dirt road in the woods makes it similar to Rally Finland. The soft dirt floor is bumpy, making the rally car keep jumping, and the tall trees on either side won't allow any mistakes. The players will face high-speed gravel for the first time in almost a year. Moreover, since Saturday was a stage that did not exist until last year, a thorough pace note was important.
Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak, and Craig Breen drove for Hyundai. Irish Breen has rejoined the rally in four rounds since Croatia. Neuville is in third place, 56 points away from Ogier (133 points), and Tanak is in fourth place, 64 points less. Winning this round is essential for defending the manufacturer's championship title. For reference, the championship points leader Sebastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans in 2nd, and Kalle Rovanpera are with Toyota. M-Sport Ford introduced Gus Greensmith and Teemu Suninen.
On the evening of Thursday, July 15, the participants of the Ceremonial Event started the race on a special 1.64km stage prepared nearby. But the real Estonia Rally started on Friday (16th July). The drivers moved south of Tartu and drove around Otepaa, the “winter capital of Estonia”. 8 stages (SS2~SS9), a 128.24km-long repeat loop of four stages, have different layouts compared to last year, although the stage names are similar; speaking of Kanepi, it was run in reverse.
Hyundai's Tanak and Breen started the opening stage SS2 in first and second places, respectively. Tanak also took the lead in the overall rankings. But his home country did not give him much luck this year. Tanak put a spare on the track with a puncture in the right front tire in SS3, but on the 4th stage, he went off course in the canopy and suffered a puncture again. Without a spare, Tanak had no choice but to retire. Neuville also wasted 17 seconds with a flat tire in SS4.
Rovanpera, who dominated five stages on the day, took the lead. Only Breen on the Hyundai team could keep up with that pace; He persistently caught up with Rovanpera to maintain second place overall. Breen, the fastest in SS8, finished Friday with an 8.5 second away from the lead. If Greensmith's broken water pump hadn't blocked his view, the gap between the lead would have been much closer. Fortunately, Breen was awarded notional times for the stage.
Neuville, who was in fifth place, continued to pursue and finished Friday in third place, beating Ogier in SS8 - 44.9 seconds away from Breen in the 2nd. Ogier finished fourth, 5.4 seconds behind Neuville, despite the disadvantage of having to start from the front. Friday was a tough day for all; Hyundai's Tanak, Ford's Gus Greensmith, and Toyota's Takamoto Katsuta all had to retire. Pierre-Louis Loubet from Hyundai C2 Competition finished 7th, following Suninen.
On Saturday, July 17th, the drivers went through nine 132.18km-long stages. They drove the courses again on Thursday after repeating four stages spread north and south of Tartu. The 23.53km-long SS10 (Peipsiaare), which starts Saturday, is the longest in the rally. Rovanpera distanced himself from his competitors with an overwhelming pace on this course.
Meanwhile, the audience gave enthusiastic cheers to Tanak, who returned from retirement, for his fierce speed since SS11. However, it is still an hour away from the lead because of the penalty added according to the number of stages that haven't finished back on Friday. The Estonian's retirement was disappointing indeed; Breen in the 2nd was 35.7 seconds away from Rovanpera in the afternoon.
Around noon, the rally cars that came out of the Service Park went through the morning stages once again. While Tanak conquered the stage six times in a row, Rovanpera followed closely behind him. 2nd place Breen collided with a rock on the inner course at SS18, breaking the suspension and spilling oil. However, since it was the last stage of the day and the short distance of 1.64 km, he lost only about 5 seconds. Breen is now 50.7 seconds behind leading Rovanpera and 30.2 seconds behind third-placed Neuville.
Neuville, who started Saturday with Ogier behind, widened the gap to 17.9 seconds in SS17 and stayed in third. Ogier was in 4th, followed by Evens, and Suninen finished 6th despite struggling with his car, and Loubet of the Hyundai C2 Competition, which aims to finish this season for the first time, is 7th. In addition, WRC3's European champion Alexey Lukianuk overtook WRC2 players and finished 8th overall.
On Sunday, July 18th, the players drove the 52.10km-long six stages (SS19-SS24). Starting with the new stage Neeruti (7.82km) that requires technique, Elva (11.72km) and Tartu Vald (6.51km) were repeated. The Tartu Vald, an extension of the SS1 Tartu, is a special sprint course built on the outskirts of the city.
Rovanpera, who was this close to his first personal win, has about 50 seconds to spare. Rovanpera and Breen, securing first and second, played it safe, while other drivers chose to take risks; Tanak and Neuville beat SS19 with a tied record of 4 minutes and 48.3 seconds. In the stage that followed, Neuville and Tanak shared the crown. In the final SS24, which also serves as a power stage, Tanak, Neuville, Ogier, Evans, and Rovanpera took 1st to 5th place to score additional points.
Rovanpera took the final victory - the youngest player in WRC history (age 20). It broke the record (22) held by the current director of Toyota, Latvala. Hyundai scored a double podium with Breen and Neuville holding 2nd and 3rd places until the end. Ogier, 4th, scored 148 points in the Drivers' Championship. Neuville, who had not scored in Kenya, left the second place with 19 points plus four power points, but Tanak fell back to fifth place behind Rovanpera. Meanwhile, Hyundai and Toyota both won the same points for the manufacturer's championship. Although Toyota took the crown at Round 7, Hyundai marked a double podium and excelled at the power stage, scoring the same 42 points as Toyota.
Round 8 will be held August 13-15 in Neuville's hometown Belgium. The famous Ypres Rally started in 1965, and it joined the domestic championships, as well as the European Rally Championship (ERC) and Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC). It was originally planned to join the WRC last year but was canceled due to the spread of the pandemic. This year, it reappeared at WRC instead of Rally UK. Belgium is notorious for its ever-changing weather and the SPA-Francorchamps circuit, where the F1 Belgian Grand Prix is held. With this included among the stages, it is raising great expectations from rally fans.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. 27 years have passed since then, the years of plowing through the writing struggles of an auto journalist. After becoming an editor for 〈Car Vision〉, I came to my current position as the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
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