After WRC finished half its season at Safari Rally Kenya in Africa in June, it returned to Europe to start the 7th round of Rally Estonia. Estonia, one of the three Baltic states along with Latvia and Lithuania, is currently experiencing spread tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Because Estonia shares a border with Russia, it is sending a lot of aid to Ukraine, despite being a small country. Even under these circumstances, large crowds flocked to Tartu, where the Rally Headquarters and Service Park are located.
First started in 2010, Rally Estonia has been a part of the European Rally Championship (ERC) since 2014, and was finally promoted to WRC in 2020. For this reason, Rally Estonia is currently among the youngest in the WRC. But even before that, many participants came to Estonia to rehearse for Rally Finland.
A longtime member of the Soviet Union, Estonia is a small country with a population of 1.3 million and a GDP of only $30.6 billion (over US$1.6 trillion for South Korea). It was because of such high registration cost that it failed to join WRC until now. However, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic somehow brought an opportunity to become the 33rd WRC host country. Estonia doesn’t even have a car manufacturer. Instead, it is home to famous rally drivers such as Markko Märtin and Ott Tänak. In particular, the high popularity of Ott Tanak, the 2019 WRC World Champion and Estonian’s favorite sports star, was the driving force that made it possible to join the WRC.
Rally Estonia, having its third year of WRC, has very similar characteristics to Finland - There is a huge speed competition on a stage with smooth roads covered with fine gravel and dirt and relatively gentle corners. It is similar to Rally Finland in that Estonia has a lot of curves on the road, so jumps are frequent. High-speed jumps are extremely risky, as control is impossible while the car is in the air. It requires quick judgment and accurate pace notes, and there is no room for making up for mistakes. This year’s Rally Estonia consists of 24 stages with a length of 314.26 km, which is slightly shorter than last year.
Like the Safari Rally, Hyundai’s drivers were Thierry Neuville, Ott Tänak and Oliver Solberg. Neuville failed to qualify for the podium in the Safari Rally and widened the score gap with Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä. Naturally, Tanak, who plays on the home ground, has been waiting for Rally Estonia the most. So far, he has participated in Rally Estonia 11 times and has won 4 times, holding the record for the most wins ever.
Toyota’s Rovanpera, who is leading the championship this season, has also been strong in Rally Estonia. He won the Rally Estonia last year and set the record for the youngest WRC champion at 20 years and 239 days. After a remarkable record of taking all of the top four in the Safari Rally, Toyota is said to have done another engine update before Rally Estonia; This is to improve the problem that the top speed of the rally car is slightly lower compared to the recent Hyundai. Their drivers are Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans, Esapekka Lappi, and Takamoto Katsuta.
The M-Sport Ford featured Craig Breen, Gus Greensmith, Adrien Fourmaux and Pierre-Louis Loubet. Breen performed well in Rally Estonia until last year - second place for the second time in a row.
The service park was also set up in Estonia’s second city, Tartu. On Thursday evening, the opening ceremony was held which took place at Tartu’s beautiful Town Hall Square. The drivers then started on a short, 1.66km-long SSS1 in a nearby park (Visit Estonia Tartu). Breen from M-Sportsford was the fastest at the opening stage and took the lead. On the other hand, Hyundai Team Tanak received a 10-second penalty after the round for not driving in electric mode in the designated area.
Tanak was penalized because of new rules in the WRC introduced this year; In line with the globally trending eco-friendliness, the WRC introduced the Rally 1 hybrid car regulations this year. At first, it started with the idea of reducing emissions by running all races only with motors, but with a battery with a capacity of 3.9kWh, the driving range was only about 20km even when fully charged. For this reason, in the end, the regulation was changed to use the EV mode only in the service park and some designated sections, but Tanak was given a 10-second penalty for not complying with this by mistake.
On Friday, July 15th, the competitors repeated the four stages north and south of Tartu in the morning and afternoon. The drivers competed for speed on the longest eight stages, 139.18km-long SS2-SS9. The 24.35km-long opening stage was the longest in Rally Estonia. The SS4 and SS8, Raanitsa, were the high-speed stages with the highest average speed last year. However, this season has a slightly different start and end compared to the previous year.
On this day, Toyota’s Evans took the lead by snatching 5 stages from the morning. Hyundai Tanak, who was testing various settings to improve grip, finished 3rd overall with a 22.5-second difference from the lead when the morning loop was finished, and his teammate Neuville maintained 4th overall with a 41-second difference. As road conditions changed dramatically as it rained in the afternoon, Toyota’s Rovanpera stepped up. He was the first to start and was able to mark good records when the road surface was still in good condition, and he recorded top times in SS7 and SS8. Then, he narrowed the gap with Evans and succeeded in overtaking in SS9, rising to the overall lead.
The soil turned to mud, and puddles formed, holding back the rally cars, and Hyundai’s drivers also struggled. Tanak lost over 20 seconds in the SS9 due to a problem with the windshield heater, and Neuville, who struggled with handling problems, focused on avoiding danger with a cautious approach.
At the close of Friday, Toyota’s Rovanpera led the way, followed by Evans by 11 seconds. Next, Hyundai Team’s Tanak placed third, and Toyota’s Lappi placed fourth. Hyundai Team’s Neuville finished fifth with a gap of 7 seconds with Lappi. It was followed by M-Sport Ford’s Fourmaux, Toyota’s Katsuta, and M-Sport Ford’s Greensmith and Loubet. M-Sport Ford’s Breen, who started Thursday in the lead, retired after getting stuck in the grass on the SS4 high-speed corner. He, just like Tanak, also received a 10-second penalty for not using hybrid mode. Solberg of Hyundai, who crashed into a tree in SS7, was pushed to the bottom.
On Saturday, July 16th, the stage was held in the south of Otepää, Estonia’s ‘winter capital.’ The drivers repeated four stages, starting with the SS10 Elva, then finished off the day’s schedule with Tartu’s short stage back on Friday. The nine stages were 95.4 km long in total. Rovanpera scored top time at the opening stage and Evans at SS11, fighting each other for the lead. But after that, Rovanpera, who conquered six stages, took the lead. Evans attempted an aggressive takeover, but by the end of Saturday the gap was widened to 29.1 seconds.
In Hyundai, Tanak, who came to the home ground, was slightly behind Rovanpera and Evans. But there was also good news; Lappi, who placed 4th overall, suffered a tire puncture at the SS12 Otepa, and Neuville moved up to 4th overall. However, Neuville had a hard time raising the pace because of handling problems and pain. Already out of the scoring zone, Solberg wasted another minute cleaning up a clogged radiator on the SS12.
It was Toyota’s Rovanpera who finished Saturday with an overall lead. And Evans of the same team came in second place, followed by Tanak and Neuville of Hyundai in third and fourth. Katsuta, Fourmaux, Lappi, Loubet, and Greensmith took 5th to 9th places. Andreas Mikkelsen (Skoda) and Teemu Suninen (Hyundai) from WRC2 class fought for 10th place.
Sunday, July 17th, was the day to decide the winner of Rally Estonia. The drivers repeated three stages - the 6.56 km-long Tartu Vald, the 16.48 km-long Kanepi and the 15.95 km-long Kambja. The combined length of the six stages was 78.02 km. The Kambja stage was back again as the final power stage.
By the end of the day, Rovanpera’s speed was remarkable. Rovanpera, who recorded a three-stage top time from the opening SS19, slowed down on SS23 to protect the tires and prepare for the final power stage. At the end of the game, it rained again, and the road condition worsened again.
In the end, after last year, Toyota’s Rovanpera became the winner of the Estonia Rally again this year. With his fifth win of the season, he took one step closer to becoming the youngest WRC champion. He scored five extra points at the final SS24 Power Stage, marking top time. On the other hand, overtaken on Saturday, Toyota’s Evans has never regained control since.
Hyundai’s Tanak, who received tremendous support from home fans, took the last place on the podium in 3rd. Neuville, who wanted to score extra points at the last stage, achieved a valuable result of placing 4th overall, despite having a hard time securing visibility. He was followed by Katsuta in 5th, Lappi in 6th, and Fourmaux in 7th. Mikkelsen, Suninen, and Lindholm from the WRC2 class also succeeded in scoring.
Toyota’s Rovanfera maintained the top spot in this season’s championship rankings with 175 points. Neuville of Hyundai, who added valuable points by placing 4th in Rally Estonia, is still in second place with 92 points. Next, Toyota’s Evans, who has earned 79 points, got third place, and Tanak, who stood on the podium in the Estonia Rally this time, is closely following the third place with 77 points.
Meanwhile, the next race will be held on August 4-7 in Finland, north of Estonia. Rally Finland, which has gravel courses similar to that of Estonia and boasts a long history of more than 70 years, is known to be the fastest rally in WRC. As Hyundai took second and third place last year, many wonder if they will be able to do well in Rally Finland this season as well.
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. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. 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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