The 20-year-old Toyota Yaris driver edged Craig Breen by 0.1sec in the twisty 1.64km Visit Estonia Tartu special stage, ahead of three days of flat-out competition in this seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
“On Sunday we’ll see the result but like in every rally, I’ll do the best I can. This is one of the rallies where I like to drive and like to push so I hope we can fight,” said Rovanperä, who now lives in Estonia and was also quickest in the morning’s warm-up shakedown stage.
This is Breen’s first gravel outing since last September’s inaugural Estonian fixture and the Irishman was overjoyed to return. “It’s just a joy to be back again. Everything feels so nice and it’s just something else competing at this level,” enthused the Hyundai i20 driver.
Video: Rally Estonia SS1
Teemu Suninen was just 0.4sec adrift of Rovanperä in a Ford Fiesta in third. The Finn, another Estonian resident, could have topped the timesheets had he not run wide on a tightening right corner.
Three cars from the support categories forced their way onto the leaderboard. Jari Huttunen, driving an i20 R5, Mads Østberg, at the wheel of a Citroën C3 R5, and the Skoda Fabia R5 of Alexey Lukyanuk were tied in fourth alongside the top-tier Fiesta of Gus Greensmith. The quartet were 0.6sec off the lead.
Estonian fan favourite Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville were tied in eighth in i20s, with championship leader Sébastien Ogier rounding off the top 10.
The test followed a dazzling opening ceremony, featuring a spectacular air show from the Flying Bulls display team, which was attended by Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid.
The action begins in earnest in Friday’s opening leg, which is centred around Otepää in south Estonia, regarded as the country’s winter capital. A double loop of four super-fast gravel stages are separated by service, totalling 128.24km.
• Full coverage from Rally Estonia will be available on WRC+ All Live here, including every stage broadcast as it happens as well as key interviews, features and expert analysis from the service park.