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Special feature
WRC Rally Estonia

WRC Estonia: Five things you may have missed

Kalle Rovanpera’s total domination of Rally Estonia wasn’t the only talking point from the eighth round of the World Rally Championship. Here’s what you may have missed from Estonia

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

1. Kalle Rovanpera at his very best is Sebastien Loeb-like

Kalle Rovanpera racked up his 10th World Rally Championship victory of his already record-breaking career but last weekend's runaway performance was perhaps his best yet.

The reigning world champion's slow start to his title defence this year raised questions that were answered by his dominant victory in Portugal, but his total domination in Estonia drew comparison with the WRC's most successful driver, nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb.

Rovanpera claimed the rally lead on Friday despite sweeping the fast gravel roads. Once in front there was no stopping the Finn's charge on his favourite rally on the calendar. He revealed that his relentless speed was down to unwavering confidence in himself and his machinery that was reflected in the stage times.

Rovanpera even had the mental capacity to quote legendary Finnish rally driver Markku Alen's famous "If I want to win the stage I win the stage" phrase during a stage-end interview.

Ultimately he won 15 out of 21 stages which included a memorising Loeb-like streak of 13 consecutive fastest times, as he went unbeaten throughout Saturday and Sunday. Rovanpera clinched victory by 52.7s in style by claiming his 15th Power Stage win from 55 attempts. His Power Stage success equates to a 27.3% strike rate that is only bettered by eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier.

Toyota boss Jari-Matti Latvala likened Rovanpera's display to Loeb in his pomp. The Frenchman rattled off 13 stage wins in a row in Germany 2008 and won all 12 stages on his way to victory at the 2005 Tour De Corse.

 
Tanak lost the chance to fight for victory before Rally Estonia even properly got going

Tanak lost the chance to fight for victory before Rally Estonia even properly got going

Photo by: M-Sport

2. Tanak penalty triggers FIA regulation review

Rovanpera faced a far easier run to victory in Estonia after one of the rally favourites Ott Tanak received a five-minute penalty before the event begun, which has triggered an FIA review.

The M-Sport driver's victory hopes were effectively over following one pass through the shakedown stage on Thursday. A significant engine failure prompted the team to switch engines incurring a five-minute penalty as per the WRC's sporting regulations.

Under the current regulations, WRC teams are restricted to two engines per chassis across the season as part of cost-saving measures under the Rally1 regulations introduced last year. On event, if an engine change is required and even if there is still one more power unit in the season allocation, the competitor will receive a five-minute penalty regardless. The penalty was labelled "harsh" and a "shame" for Rally Estonia by championship leader Rovanpera.

"Every time there is an issue like this we have to review and understand, but clearly there is a clear penalty for when you go above two engines [per season]," Andrew Wheatley, the FIA's road sport director, told Motorsport.com. "I think what we need to review is whether that penalty is enough by itself or whether we still need the regulation that says between scrutineering and the start of the rally [you receive a five-minute penalty]. I'm sure we can find a better way to manage that."

Tanak still managed to entertain the thousands of fans that came out to support their national hero. The 2019 world champion won six of the opening eight stages that would have resulted in the rally lead barring the penalty as he climbed from 48th to eighth by the finish.

 
The WRC drivers will miss Estonia but hope it can be used as a template for future rallies

The WRC drivers will miss Estonia but hope it can be used as a template for future rallies

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

3. Drivers lament loss of WRC blueprint event for 2024

Rally Estonia's expected omission from the 2024 World Rally Championship left a sour taste among the drivers, teams and fans after the Baltic nation delivered "what a WRC event should look like", according to Hyundai's Thierry Neuville.

Estonia made its WRC debut in 2020 becoming the first rally of the WRC's return from its hiatus following the COVID-19 pandemic. It has since grown to become a favourite among drivers thanks to its fast yet challenging stages, meticulous organisation and the impressive turnout from spectators.

 

Despite a government budget cut for this year's edition, the rally continued to attract large crowds. However, after failing to secure a guarantee on government funding, it is expected that Latvia will take its spot, having already been announced as a new addition to the WRC schedule for next year.

"To lose an event which is incredibly well organised, that everyone loves, and to replace it with another event that is going to be the same just in another place, but probably not as good organisation and probably not as nice stages, for me it is a mistake," said Neuville.

The WRC and Rally Estonia organisers are working to secure a new three-year deal, which will see the event join the European Rally Championship calendar next year with a view to a WRC return for 2025.

"We have always been quite clear that Latvia from its long and very good service in the ERC deserves the chance to come into the WRC next year," WRC event director Simon Larkin told Motorsport.com. "Latvia is a country that is taking it very seriously and we think it will be a great addition. The reality is, although nothing is fixed yet until its announced, but it probably means that Estonia will be in the ERC and we are looking at a multi-year commitment to bring them back to WRC after that."

 
Hyundai's gains were on display last weekend as it aims to catch Toyota

Hyundai's gains were on display last weekend as it aims to catch Toyota

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

4. Hyundai now a real contender on high-speed gravel rallies

After struggling to match Toyota in Estonian last year, Hyundai has emerged as a genuine challenger to the Japanese brand on high-speed gravel rallies. While the South Korean didn't register a fastest stage time largely thanks to Rovanpera being in a different postcode, Hyundai delivered far stronger showing on the smooth gravel finishing second, third and fifth with its three entries.

Neuville's run to second, albeit 52.7s behind Rovanpera, represented a true barometer of the progress, having finished almost four minutes adrift of winner Rovanpera last year. It was the Belgian's best result in these conditions since Rally Finland in 2013.

Neuville credited the upturn in form to the time Hyundai has spent testing and evolving its i20 N at its new Finland test base and the arrival of team-mate Esapekka Lappi, who finished third in Estonia, whose similar driving style has helped push the team forward in nailing set-ups.

"The best thing is I felt comfortable in the car and I was able to drive with my usual rhythm at such a fast event," said Neuville. "The car has evolved. We were far off last year and Ott was even struggling to be close to the podium. We have a good car and we have been doing lots of testing on Finnish roads, which are similar, and I'm getting more used to it. With Esapekka, we work in the same direction and we had the same set-up all weekend because the balance, grip and speed we want is the same. As a team, we evolve much quicker than before."

Suninen delivered on his belated WRC top class return

Suninen delivered on his belated WRC top class return

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

5. Suninen proves he deserves a second chance at WRC big time

It's fair to say Teemu Suninen has endured a turbulent time in the WRC in recent years, but grasped a second shot at the big time in Estonia. Suninen has been drafted in to pilot the third i20 N Rally1 alongside Dani Sordo following the tragic loss of Craig Breen in a testing accident in April.

The Finn's last top flight WRC outing arrived at the 2021 Rally Monza season finale when he stood in for Ott Tanak a few months after parting company with M-Sport mid-season, and spending last season in WRC2 with Hyundai. After only two test days and a warm-up event, Suninen proved he belongs in the top tier after delivering a faultless yet emotional drive to fifth.

"It is a really special feeling to finish fifth. I'm sure Craig has been following my weekend. It would have been nice to have finished on the podium for him, but we didn't manage it here," said Suninen. "I have done all I can to try and work as he had been working, and it's been an emotional rally for me."

Suninen will be back behind the wheel at Rally Finland next week with expectation levels raised after his Estonia display.

 

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