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Stage report
WRC Rally Estonia

WRC Estonia: Rovanpera strikes to overhaul Neuville

World rally champion Kalle Rovanpera will lead Rally Estonia heading into Saturday after snatching the advantage from Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville on Friday afternoon.

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

The Toyota driver appeared to make light work of opening the roads to end the day with a slender 3.0s lead over Neuville. 

Neuville assumed the rally lead on stage two and held the advantage until stage six when Rovanpera managed to overhaul the Belgian after claiming his second stage win of the event.

However, M-Sport’s Ott Tanak delivered the drive of the day to win five of the seven stages to shoot up 11th in the leaderboard after a five-minute penalty for an engine change on Thursday.  

Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi managed to leapfrog Toyota’s Elfyn Evans across the afternoon to move into third, as 14.1s separated the top four. 

Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen ended his first competitive day in a Rally1 car in fifth (+33.8s) ahead of M-Sport’s Pierre-Louis Loubet (+48.8s) and Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta (+1m03.6s). Toksport Skoda driver Andreas Mikkelsen took eighth overall to lead WRC2. 

After dominating the times across the morning stages, Tanak’s stage-winning streak was brought to an end on stage five, held under threatening skies.

Tanak opted for a soft set-up on his Puma having expected muddy conditions but the road surface was drier than anticipated. The decision ultimately contributed to Tanak posting the sixth-fastest time, 5.6s off the pace.

The pace was set by Rovanpera, who emerged as the stage winner after battling his way through the now heavily-rutted roads with spots of rain in the air.  

Despite the tricky road conditions, Rovanpera closed the gap to rally leader to 2.1s, as Neuville also found the going tough in the damp conditions.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

With the use of his hybrid unit restored, Lappi proved to be Rovanpera’s nearest rival on the test, ending the stage 2.1s behind his compatriot. Lappi took 0.3s out of Evans as the battle for third overall began to heat up.

Meanwhile, Katsuta and Loubet were fortunate not to encounter trouble after the pair survived wild two-wheel moments after running wide at the same point in the stage. 

The same couldn’t said for WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg, who damaged a damper which put him out of the action, handing the advantage to class rival Mikkelsen. 

The overall rally lead also changed hands on stage six as Rovanpera claimed his second stage win of the event to move into a 2.3s advantage over Neuville.

Rovanpera came through the stage 3.5s faster than Tanak, who survived two wild moments. First, the Estonian came close to a tree in a narrow forest section, before rescuing a lurid slide moments later. 

"We don't call them slides, they are surprises,” smiled Tanak.

While the rain held off for Rovanpera, conditions worsened to a point where WRC2 runners faced heavy rain.

Neuville encountered light rain during his pass but it was a struggle with understeer and oversteer in the ruts that resulted in 4.4s being dropped and the lead switching to Rovanpera. 

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

Evans and Lappi posted identical times to maintain a second gap between the pair in overall standings heading into stage seven.

The penultimate test of the day offered a much smoother road surface which played into the hands of the M-Sport drivers.

Tanak returned to the top of the times while team-mate Loubet produced his best drive of the day to claim third-fastest, 3.1s slower than the Estonian. 

“When it's like a grand prix the car is behaving rather okay. My boy was cheering me on at the start line so I had to give him a bit of a push,” said Tanak.

Neuville, hampered by a brake issue, managed to take a tenth back from rally leader Rovanpera. There was more joy for Hyundai as Lappi set the second-fastest time to leapfrog Evans into third overall before torrential rain arrived for the majority of the WRC2 field.

Tanak rounded off Friday with a sixth stage win of the event in the only pass through the 7.7km Neeruti stage. He took the spoils by 1.1s from Evans, who in turn closed the gap in his fight for third overall with Lappi to 1.9s.

Neuville was unable to make the most of his road position compared to Rovanpera and dropped 0.8s to his rival in battle for the rally lead. 

The rally continues on Saturday with a further nine stages scheduled, comprising of 136.73 kilometres.

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