After the Kenya Safari Rally, the WRC returned to Europe. Rally Estonia, held about a month after Rally Kenya, is an iconic high-speed gravel rally like Rally Finland. Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea, was once part of the Soviet Union and became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Estonia joined the EU in 2004.
Estonia is a small country with a population of just over 1.3 million, with a small automotive industry, but it is home to some of the best racers in motorsport, especially in rally - such as 5-time WRC winner Markko Martin and 2019 champion Ott Tänak. There are also rising stars such as Romet Jürgenson, who won the European final of the FIA’s Rally Star Program, beating 88 rivals. Ott Tänak had a big influence on Estonia, which is not so economically wealthy, being able to host a huge event called the WRC.
Rally Estonia first started in 2010 and appeared on the WRC calendar in 2020, so its history is relatively short. Originally, it was almost canceled due to high registration fees, but due to the pandemic, it succeeded in entering the 2020 WRC; WRC had to stay in Europe because it was impossible to move to another continent. Service Park is located along with the National Museum in Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia.
This year, 300.42 km-long 21 stages were held, starting with the Super Special Stage (SSS1) near the Service Park on Thursday evening. Rally Estonia, which features smooth high-speed gravel and jumps, has something in common with Rally Finland. So, before joining the WRC, racers participating in Rally Finland often participated in regional rallies in Estonia for practice and setting research. Soft ground and gentle corners increase the speed of rally cars. It’s fun to watch thanks to its exhilarating driving, but it’s not fun for the racers. Even a small mistake can lead to a major accident. Among active drivers, Tänak, who is from here, is by far the best in terms of experience and performance. He has won 4 of the 11 races so far - although the last two years have been dominated by Kalle Rovanperä.
For this rally, two different tire compounds, soft and hard, were prepared. Estonia is quite slippery with a lot of sand compared to Finland, and the roads pit easily with tires, making it even more tricky to get through again in the afternoon. Also, the countless mid-distance jumps performed here are a huge stress on rally cars and tires.
Hyundai Motorsport GmbH entered Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen. Neuville, who finished 8th at the last Kenya Safari Rally and had a top time on the power stage, had his points taken away for violating stage scouting, and he was eventually pushed back to 5th in the championship rankings. He must win for the championship title, but so far his performance in high-speed gravel races has not been great.
Neuville showed his commitment to the race: “Rally Estonia is a very challenging event. You need a car that is easy to drive because you have to go fast on the wide stages. On the first drive, the car is often lowered, and on the second drive, the road is deep and the car needs to be raised. A machine needs a balance between rigidity and intentionality, but also sufficient traction. Getting the right balance is not easy.”
Lappi, who broke four propeller shafts on the Kenya safari and failed to score, is looking for a comeback on his home grounds in Estonia and Finland. Lappi stood on the podium three times in a row, including Round 4 Croatia, Portugal and Italy, and is currently marking the 6th place in drivers’ points. He explained that the most important thing was to take thorough pace notes on the recee. Crossing the bushes would be good for the record, but this also could lead to an accident if the car hits a hidden rock.
Finnish driver Teemu Suninen, a new member of the Hyundai team’s driver lineup, replaced the void left by Craig Breen’s sudden death. The Hyundai team has been developing Rally 2 vehicles and operating the WRC2 program, but the hybrid Rally 1 machine is new, so it will take some time for the team members to adapt to it. By employing two Finnish drivers, the Hyundai team was able to compensate for their weakness in the high-speed gravel rally, which was regarded as their weakness in the past.
Suninen expressed both joy and enthusiasm: “I am truly excited to be able to drive the Hyundai i20 N Rally 1 Hybrid. Estonia in particular is one of my favorite rallies. I feel really good right now because I’ve been dreaming and trying desperately for this moment. Rally Estonia is one of the fastest WRC races, so I think it’s more like a sprint event. We’ll focus on earning points for the manufacturers championship title first, but we also need to keep a good pace. I will continue to aim for the top ranks.” Suninen is set to compete in Estonia and Finland back-to-back, and further schedules have not yet been announced.
The Hyundai team updated their driver list and announced the Hyundai Motorsport Driver development Program (HMDP). This is to provide rookie drivers with rich experience to develop their potential and further increase the team’s options. Selected for the program, Emil Lindholm is a 26-year-old Finnish driver, a rising star who drove a Škoda rally car for Toksport and won last year’s WRC2 championship. In this race, he will adapt to the i20 N Rally 2 and face Oliver Solberg and Andreas Mikkelsen in the WRC2 class.
Leading both the driver and team championship rankings, Toyota’s entry list includes Kalle Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta. They also upgraded their engines. Defending champion Rovanpera has been particularly strong on high-speed gravel, having won the 2021 and 2022 Rally Estonia. What he has in mind is that he starts first. Katsuta was promoted as Toyota’s third driver this season.
M-Sport Ford faced difficulties even before the start of the game. During the shakedown test, the engine in Ott Tänak’s car had serious problems, so he replaced it with a five-minute penalty. Tänak is currently fourth in the championship, 42 points behind Rovanpera. On his home ground in Estonia, he’s most likely to stop Rovanpera’s dominance, but he’s getting a rough start right from the beginning. The team’s list includes Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet.
After completing the shakedown test in the morning of Thursday, July 20th, the drivers started the race at 8pm at the 3.35km SSS1 near the service park. On the opening stage as the sun was setting, Lappi and Evans tied for the lead, followed by Rovanpera, Neuville, Katsuta and Suninen. In fact, Tänak was the fastest, but because of the five-minute penalty he received, he started the first day in 48th place.
On Friday, July 21st, racers traversed the race’s longest 24.35km-long course twice a morning and afternoon from SS2 - starting in Peipsiääre, via Mustvee to Raanitsa. The day ended with the 7.6km-long Neeruti stage. The combined distance of the seven stages reaches 133.38km.
Neuville took the overall lead in the morning session, but it was Tänak who was fastest on the three morning stages. The better his pace was, the more regrettable the penalty was. Neuville steadily maintained his overall lead. Lappi had the hybrid system jammed by the impact of landing the SS3 jump, so he had to go without assist by as much as 100 kW (about 130 hp).
It rained in the afternoon, and Rovanpera accelerated, eventually moving up to the overall lead over Neuville by the time SS6 was finished. At the end of the Friday, Rovanpera was in the lead, with Neuville just three seconds behind. Lappi was named third, 9.2 seconds behind Neuville. Despite the hybrid problems in the morning, he managed to beat Evans by 1.9 seconds. Suninen, a newcomer to the Hyundai team, finished 5th ahead of Loubet and Katsuta. It was a very good pace considering he wasn’t used to Rally 1 cars yet. After the race, Suninen was amazed at how fast the car was. Tänak looked for a chance to score points by moving up to 11th, 4:47 behind the lead; He might have been the overall lead had it not been for the penalty.
On Saturday the racers faced 9 stages from SS9 to SS17, but they were 102.61km-long, shorter than Friday’s. After repeating Mäeküla (10.27km) and Otepää (11.15km) in the morning, Elva (11.73km) and Kanepi (16.48km) were repeated in the afternoon. And the racers ended the day on a 3.35km-long sprint stage near Tartu.
The day was dominated by Rovanpera. He swept all 9 stages and beat his rivals. Neuville, who was very close to him, had a slow puncture on SS12, which increased the time difference with him to 20 seconds at once. With his teammate Lappi following behind, narrowing by just 6.7 seconds, the second place spot was also uncertain. With Evans closely following, Lappi also had no time to spare. However, the duo from Hyundai Motorsport managed the pace in the afternoon and beat Evans to secure second and third places. Meanwhile, Katsuta’s display panel went out, making driving difficult.
At Saturday’s end, Rovanpera was 34.9 seconds ahead of Neuville, moving close to winning. Rovanpera was followed by Neuville and Lappi in second and third respectively. Evans is aiming for a podium finish 7.3 seconds behind Lappi. Suninen is fifth, Loubet and Katsuta and Tänak are sixth and eighth respectively, followed by Andreas Mikkelsen and Sami Pajari in the WRC2 class.
The course on Sunday, July 23rd was held over four stages, the 61.80km-long SS18 to SS21, looping through the 12.04km-long Karaski and the 18.50km-long Kambja. Rovanpera was fast until the end; After posting consecutive top times from the opening on Sunday, he widened his gap with Neuville. And with the last SS21 left, the time difference between the two increased to 46.5 seconds. On the SS21 Kambja, which is also the final and power stage, Rovanpera was fastest, with Evans, Lappi, Tänak and Neuville splitting the extra points with 2nd to 5th places respectively.
As a result, Rovanpera took his 2nd win of the season and his 10th personal trophy, moving one step closer to the championship title. Hyundai Motorsport marked a double podium with Neuville and Lappi occupying the rest of the podium. Neuville recorded a personal best in Rally Estonia this time; This was an especially impressive result, as high-speed gravel courses have been regarded as his weakness thus far. Suninen moved up to fifth with a gap of more than a minute over Evans. Although Estonia is his home ground, this is more than expected given that this is his first Rally 1.
In terms of championship points, Rovanpera reached 170 and Evans held on to second place. Neuville jumped to third, ahead of Tänak and Ogier. In terms of team points, Toyota scored 331 points and the Hyundai team scored 274 points, with no change in ranking, but the difference in points increased from 49 points to 57 points.
Lindholm, who joined WRC2 as a member of Hyundai, managed to finish on the podium in 3rd behind Mikkelsen and Pajari in his first race with the new team. Although his car had intermittent power steering problems and he couldn’t push harder, it was a good performance considering it was his first car.
The next round will be held in Finland from 3-6 August. It’s a high-speed gravel rally similar to Estonia’s, so another high-speed battle will take place. Hyundai Motorsport plans to keep Neuville, Lappi, and Suninen in their entries and continue to aim for the championship titles.
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.
HMG Journal Operation Teamgroup@hyundai.com
Pursuant to the Creative Commons License (CCL) 2.0, all users can copy, distribute, and transmit Information available on the Hyundai Motor Group Newsroom, or use it for exhibitions and performances. Please note, however, that all information is protected by copyright. Information users must use the information available on the Hyundai Motor Group Newsroom for strictly private/personal purposes only.HMG Operation Policy