Estonia WRC: M-Sport’s Esapekka Lappi takes early lead

The 2020 FIA World Rally Championship has officially restarted as Rally Estonia got underway on Friday evening in front of thousands of socially-distanced fans on the short 1.28-km spectator stage at Tartu vald.

Estonia WRC: M-Sport’s Esapekka Lappi takes early lead

Seven-time champion and current points leader Sebastien Ogier got the ball rolling with what appeared to be a rather tentative run through the stage in his Toyota Yaris WRC, stopping the clocks with a time of 1m 17.0s on the narrow, twisting gravel.

Britain’s Elfyn Evans, who led the drivers’ standings briefly back in March after taking victory in Sweden, guided the second Toyota through with even greater circumspection, his time more than half a second off the Frenchman’s run.

Thierry Neuville then showed why the softly-softly approach might well have been prudent. This year’s Monte Carlo Rally winner fired his Hyundai I20 Coupe WRC wide on the second corner of the rally and spent most of his time looking through the side windows as he slithered to the finish 1.5 seconds adrift of Ogier’s target time.

Several other front-runners found that Tartu vald presented a serious challenge, with the hefty straw bales claiming several expensive chunks of aerodynamic equipment as the evening progressed. Among those who sent the hay flying was the reigning world champion, Estonia’s own Ott Tanak, who still drew the biggest cheers of the night as he ended up just 0.1s off the lead.

However, as the stage bedded in, the man who took fullest advantage was M-Sport’s Esapekka Lappi, the popular Finn shading Ogier’s time in the Fiesta WRC by hundredths of a second. After his car was destroyed by fire at the last event in Mexico, and in a difficult financial climate for his team, Lappi was equally surprised and delighted to have set the pace.

“It didn’t feel that good to be honest,” he said. “Well this is not really what the stages will be tomorrow but we had a good shakedown, a good opening stage… looking forward!”

With Lappi and Ogier heading Tanak at the top of the timesheet, Irishman Craig Breen, a former winner of Rally Estonia, threw down his marker to hold fourth overnight in one of his outings in the works Hyundai squad, sitting 0.2s ahead of Evans.

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In the WRC2 category, current points leader Mads Ostberg stamped his authority on the other junior runners, setting sixth fastest time overall at the wheel of his Citroen C3 R5.

“The nerves are quite big,” the Norwegian said. “It’s been a long wait to feel the importance of a WRC event again.  To be honest I quite enjoy that – it’s nice to be a bit shaky again!”

Ostberg’s closest challenger was Swedish driver Pontus Tidemand, winner of the previous round in Mexico, who sat 0.2s behind in ninth overall in his Skoda R5.

Back in March, Tidemand was uncertain of continuing on the globe-trotting championship trail due to an absence of funds but the post-Covid calendar has greatly reduced travel budgets and his sponsor-less presence has guaranteed a strong battle with Ostberg in the days ahead.

The rally restarts on Saturday morning with the 21km Prangli stage starting at 07:40, opening a busy 11-stage itinerary for the day.

Stage 1 results:

Cla Driver/Codriver Car Class Time Gap
1 Finland Esapekka Lappi
Finland Janne Ferm
Ford Fiesta WRC RC1 1'17.000
2 France Sébastien Ogier
France Julien Ingrassia
Toyota Yaris WRC RC1 1'17.000 0.000
3 Estonia Ott Tanak
Estonia Martin Jarveoja
Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC RC1 1'17.100 0.100
4 Ireland Craig Breen
Ireland Paul Nagle
Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC RC1 1'17.400 0.400
5 United Kingdom Elfyn Evans
United Kingdom Scott Martin
Toyota Yaris WRC RC1 1'17.600 0.600
6 Norway Mads Ostberg
Norway Torstein Eriksen
Citroën C3 R5 RC2 1'18.200 1.200
7 Japan Takamoto Katsuta
United Kingdom Daniel Barritt
Toyota Yaris WRC RC1 1'18.400 1.400
8 Sweden Pontus Tidemand
Patrik Barth
Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo RC2 1'18.400 1.400
9 Finland Kalle Rovanperä
Finland Jonne Halttunen
Toyota Yaris WRC RC1 1'18.400 1.400
10 Finland Teemu Suninen
Finland Jarmo Lehtinen
Ford Fiesta WRC RC1 1'18.500 1.500
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