Fri 21 Jul 2023

Impressive Neuville leads on Friday morning

Thierry Neuville left FIA World Rally Championship leader Kalle Rovanperä gasping for breath by setting the tempo through Rally Estonia’s opening morning in his Hyundai i20 N.

The Belgian, who was 1.0sec off the lead in fourth after Thursday night’s curtain-raising special stage in Tartu, blasted to the head of the pack in Friday’s opening 24.45km Peipsiääre test, the longest of the rally.

On a morning when M-Sport Ford Puma man Ott Tänak - lumbered with a five-minute time penalty - topped the timesheets in all three stages, Neuville outshone the rest of the pack. He reached the mid-leg service with a 6.8sec advantage over Kalle Rovanperä while Elfyn Evans was a further 6.2sec back in third.

Neuville, currently fifth in the championship, is on a comeback mission after a disqualification saw him depart last month’s Safari Rally Kenya empty-handed.

“We are having fun and the car feels not so bad,” he said. “When the surface is hard, the grip is really low and I struggled a bit with that. [In the last stage] I was losing the rear all of the time, I had a couple of wide slides, but I had fun.”

Series leader and road opener Rovanperä complained of a lack of traction caused by loose stones on the mainly dry road surface. The Finn, who pilots a Toyota GR Yaris, hunts down his third consecutive Rally Estonia triumph this week.

Evans, driving a similar car, felt he was missing “that last bit of speed” over the lightning-fast gravel roads. Just 1.3sec separated him from fourth-placed Esapekka Lappi, who completed the morning with no hybrid boost after a heavy landing in Peipsiääre.    

Early prospects look good for Lappi’s team-mate Teemu Suninen, stepping up to a Rally1-specification Hyundai for the very first time. Trailing his fellow Finn by only 5.3sec, Suninen was visibly shaken after some stages as he got acclimatised with the sheer speed of the car.

Takamoto Katsuta has vowed to take a “step by step” approach to his sixth Rally Estonia but his confidence took a knock in Mustvee 1 when he overshot a junction. The Toyota hopeful completed the loop 10.1sec behind Suninen and had a mere eight-tenths of a second in hand over M-Sport Ford’s Pierre-Louis Loubet.

Oliver Solberg set a storming pace to build an early lead over Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 rival Andreas Mikkelsen in the WRC2 category. The pair held eighth and ninth overall while Gus Greensmith, who is not scoring championship points, completed the top 10.

Latvia
Starts: Thursday, July 18, 2024 at 4:31:00 AM
Italy
Starts: Friday, July 26, 2024 at 7:00:00 AM
Hungary
Starts: Saturday, July 27, 2024 at 6:00:00 AM