Rovanpera grabs narrow lead in Estonia Rally opener

Tartu (Estonia) (AFP) –


Finn Kalle Rovanpera won the opening stage of the Estonia Rally around Tartu on Thursday evening.

The 22-year-old Toyota driver completed the 1.64km opening stage in 1min 42.8sec, only 0.1sec ahead of Irishman Craig Breen, who was second last year, in a Hyundai.

"On Sunday we will see the result," said Rovanpera, who was also fastest in the morning shakedown. "This is one of the rallies where I like to drive and like to push, so hopefully we can fight."

Breen was driving for the first time since the Croatia Rally on tarmac in April. He missed the Portuguese, Sardinian and Safari rallies, all on gravel. While Estonia is also on gravel the surface is much more reliable than Kenya.

"It's a joy to be back again," said Breen. "Everything feels so nice. This is real rallying."

The Hyundais have had pace this season but lacked reliability.

"The things this car can do, it just blows your mind," said Breen

The top five was completed by some unexpected names.

Finn Teemu Sunine, who is 11th in the championship, was 0.4 back in an M-Sport Ford.

He was followed by two drivers in the lower WRC2 class, with another Finn Jari Huttunen fourth in a Hyundai and Norwegian Mads Ostberg, who leads the second tier standings, fifth in a Citroen. Both were 0.6sec off the lead.

Ostberg said he was not going all out.

"On this stage, there was so much to lose and minimum things to win, so we took it easy," he said.

As championship leader, Sebastien Ogier opened the road in his Toyota and was 10th at 1.20sec.

"I think we have a tough weekend ahead of us," the Frenchman said. "Already here, it's quite slippery. Opening the road I have no idea what I can achieve."

Ogier, a seven-time world champion, leads the drivers' standings by 34 points from his British team-mate Elfyn Evans, has won four times this season and has won the last two rallies in Sardinia and Kenya.

Evans was 19th 3.2sec.

Estonian Ott Tanak and Belgian Thierry Neuville, both in Hyundais, were eighth and ninth, 0.9sec back.

"The first target is to take the fight with the Toyotas - for sure, they are fast," said Tanak, who won his home race last year and was the best placed Hyundai in Kenya, where he finished third.

Neuville said that he wants a good result after failing to finish in Kenya and being forced out on the final stage in Estonia last year.

"We need the win for us, but also for the team," he said. "We have revenge to take from last year and also from the last rally in Kenya, so hopefully we are going to have some luck with us."

The rally continues with six stages on both Friday and Saturday and five on Sunday.