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Race Watch 15

World Rally Championship:

Rally Estonia 2020

Following the best part of six months off, the WRC heads to a new event: Rally Estonia. In the homeland of the reigning World Champion, is it time for Tanak’s first win of the year?

173 days after round three ended, the fourth World Rally Championship event begun, and my, was it a good one. The first Rally Estonia to be classed as a WRC event produced the fourth WRC winner in four rallies, proving the wide-open title race was unlikely to conclude any time soon. But what exactly happened?

Now, I won’t bore you with all the context of the championship etc going into this round, as I explained everything regarding the season so far in my previous #RacingGrind article (which you can read here). Therefore, the only important information needed to set the scene is that the majority of this rally’s running was not taking place on the Friday, in order to compress the event a little. This meant that Saturday’s bumper 10 stages took extra importance, with the road order taking championship order in the morning loop, before reverting to the standard reverse-standings road order for the afternoon.

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As such, Sebastien Ogier lead us off during the Friday night opening stage and Saturday morning loop.  He led well during the 1.28km Stage 1, too, setting the joint-fastest time alongside Esapekka Lappi. The times were very close-knit, however, as you would expect on such a short stage, with Ott Tanak, Craig Breen and Elfyn Evans all less than a second behind.

The Rally proper, then, began with an early start on Saturday, and it was Kalle Rovanpera who clearly got out of bed on the correct side, as he registered the fastest stage time, 1.3 seconds clear of Craig Breen. This gap also gave the young Finn the overall lead of the rally as well, with Breen’s Hyundai once again in second place, albeit just three tenths back. This lead didn’t last long, however. A rear-right puncture on the very next stage cost the Toyota driver around 25 seconds, dropping him into eighth overall. Ott Tanak had contrasting fortunes, however, as he won stage three by 5.6 seconds to – yes – Craig Breen. Elfyn Evans beat Neuville into third on the stage to ensure it wasn’t a Hyundai 1-2-3, whilst Ogier was fifth on the stage yet moved into fourth overall due to Rovanpera’s misfortune.

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Tanak and Breen continued their dual domination on stage four, with the Estonian beating the Irishman by just a tenth, with the third Hyundai of Neuville completing the stage with a good enough time to move him into a podium place overall. The Toyotas fought back on stage 5, however, with Ogier claiming the stage win from Rovanpera, albeit less than a second ahead of the local man Tanak, before Neuville rounded off his morning with a stage win of his own.

At lunch on Saturday, then, the overall standings had the three main Hyundais in the top three, with four Toyotas chasing. That’s right, four Toyotas, as the Japanese outfit’s Japanese development driver – Takamoto Katsuta – was having the WRC performance of his life. After six stages the 27-year-old, alongside co-driver Dan Barritt, was just 35 seconds off the lead. Even more impressively, he was less than 20 seconds behind the leading Yaris, piloted by a six-time World Champion.

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Saturday afternoon contained more Tanak dominance, with the reigning World Champion finishing second on stages 7, 9 and 11, and winning stage 8. The only ‘blemish’ was during stage 10, when he was a ‘lowly’ fifth, and a ‘massive’ four seconds off Breen’s pace. Breen also claimed stage 9, whilst stage wins for the Toyotas of Ogier (7) and Rovanpera (11) bookended the afternoon.

Whilst is was a productive afternoon for two of the Hyundai entrants, it was misery for the Rallye Monte Carlo winner Thierry Neuville. An off on stage seven ripped the rear-right wheel from its suspension, meaning a 1 minute 15 second delay in the stage, but more disappointingly withdrawal from the afternoon’s proceedings. As such, with his pointless Mexican outing (pointless as in point-less, rather than no point in him going) and now this, I’d say the Belgian’s 2020 title hunt is over.

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Other than the aforementioned, there wasn’t much movement in the overall classification during the afternoon, meaning the standings overnight were Tanak leading Breen by 11.7s, with Ogier a further 17.0s back. Fourth was kale Rovanpera, but he was hit by a 1-minute time penalty after his co-driver removed a radiator cover whilst in parc fermé conditions. As such Evans was fourth, Katsuta fifth and Rovanpera sixth.

It was a miserable rally for the M-Sport Ford Fiestas, as the cars were simply not on the pace. Esapekka Lappi, after his win on Friday’s stage 1, was the best-placed Fiesta, yet even he was 1 minute 40 seconds behind the lead, down in seventh overnight. They would be hoping for a better Sunday.

Sunday came, and with it some Toyota dominance. Well, relatively speaking. No single driver was significantly quicker, however there was a whitewash of stage victories. Evans took the opening round of the day, with Rovanpera less than half a second behind. Clearly the teenager was angered by his overnight penalty, as he went one better in stage 13, taking the stage victory by 2.1s from Tanak. Sebastien Ogier then got his fair share, setting the fastest times through stages 14 and 15, before Rovanpera swept up the remaining two stages.

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Rovanpera’s Sunday performance included a magical run in the final stage – the Wolf Power Stage, for which there are bonus World Championship points up for grabs. The No. 69 Toyota absolutely blitzed the stage, beating Elfyn Evans by 5.1 seconds. To put that into context, the winning margin was the second biggest seen on any stage all weekend, only eclipsed by Tanak’s 5.6 second gap to Craig Breen on stage 3. The third largest margin, for context, was 3.3 seconds, by Tanak over Rovanpera on stage 8, so it’s safe to say these drivers are pretty equally matched, in general.

Unfortunately, Rovanpera’s supreme pace couldn’t bump him up the classification, as the only position he gained was as a result of Katsuta having a horrendous roll on stage 13. Both Katsuta and Barritt were unharmed in the incident, however their Yaris certainly was. No overall classification movement occurred in the top 4, however, meaning Tanak registered his first victory of the season, making it four winners from four events in the WRC this year. Craig Breen showed fantastic pace to secure second, with Sebastien Ogier’s third extending his World Championship lead. The rest of the top 10 read Evans, Rovanpera, Suninen, Lappi, Greensmith, Oliver Solberg (in an R5 VW Polo) and Mads Ostberg (in an R5 Citroen C3).

In the Driver’s Championship, then, it’s Ogier still in command, extending his lead over Evans by a point. Ogier now sits on 79 points, with Evans 9 back on 70. Tanak’s victory pushes him onto 66 points and third in the standings, whilst Rovanpera now sits in fourth, albeit much further adrift with 55 points. As a result, I’d say this championship has become a three-horse battle between a six-time World Champion, the reigning World Champion, and a Welshman. Who’s my money on? It’s too close to call right now, but the picture may look a little clearer after the next event in Turkey, in just two weeks’ time.

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