Ott Tänak lived up to his billing as pre-event favourite to lead the FIA World Rally Championship’s restart event at Rally Estonia on Saturday night.
Driving on home roads, Tänak shrugged aside the series’ six-month Covid-19 lay-off to head Estonia’s first world rally by 11.7sec.
On a superb day for his Hyundai Motorsport squad, team-mate Craig Breen held second in an identical i20 World Rally Car.
Estonia became the 33rd country to stage a championship round as the series reached a landmark 600th event since it began in 1973.
Tänak celebrated by taking an iron grip on the blisteringly fast sandy roads on which he developed his career.
Teenager Kalle Rovanperä grabbed the lead in this morning’s opening speed test.
Tänak was only fourth after being hampered by a soft tyre, but charged to the front on the next stage and built a 6.8sec mid-leg margin over Breen.
The repeated roads were rougher this afternoon, but Tänak doubled his lead before throttling back, content to have won three of today’s 10 stages.
“This afternoon, especially, the middle stages were really rough,” he said. “I know I can’t risk anything, I need to come through if I want to fight for the championship. It’s been a demanding and tricky day, so high-speed and rough.”
Breen’s part-time programme brings less chance to impress, but the Irishman laid claim to being driver of the day. He won two stages and was second on three more. “You feel a super-hero on some of these stages, they are some of the fastest I’ve driven,” he said.
Hyundai was on course for a clean sweep of the top three as Thierry Neuville was on Breen’s heels. But his i20 bounced out of a rut, swiped a bank and smashed the rear right suspension, leaving the Belgian stranded.
Championship leader Sébastien Ogier replaced Neuville in third. The Frenchman, driving a Toyota Yaris, won two stages but was hindered by two tyres delaminating and a final test stall.
Ogier trailed Breen by 17.0sec and headed team-mate Rovanperä by 6.2sec. The young Finn’s early lead vanished with a puncture which relegated him to eighth, but he recovered to snatch fourth from fellow Yaris driver Elfyn Evans in the final stage.
Evans was third initially but struggled to retain his rhythm and tyre troubles saw him slide back to fifth. The Welshman had 25.1sec in hand over team-mate Takamoto Katsuta, the Japanese youngster belying his lack of experience to stay on course for a career-best sixth.