Ott Tänak delivered a virtuoso performance on day one of auto24 Rally Estonia to lead his country's inaugural round of the FIA European Rally Championship by an impressive margin of 44.2 seconds after Friday's stages.
Driving a Ford Fiesta R5 for Estonian legend Markko Märtin's team, Tänak set a lightning pace on Friday's spectacular high-speed gravel stages, going fastest seven times before rounding out his charge with the quickest run through the sealed-surface test in Estonia's second largest city, Tartu, which attracted an estimated 30,000 fans.
Despite his dominance in the stunning sun-baked Estonian countryside, there were two moments of concern for the 26-year old talent. The first came on stage six when he got wide on a high-speed right-hander and briefly slipped off the road as he battled to regain control. Then, prior to starting the Tartu City test, the fuel pressure warning light came on. He now faces an anxious wait to see if the car will be in full working order when he returns to overnight parc fermé
ahead of the 46-kilometre journey back to service in Otepää on Saturday morning.
“If we can make it back to service tomorrow then it's okay,” said Tänak, who has been cheered on by thousands of spectators throughout the day. “I got the alarm before the stage but the engine was running okay. But it's been a good day with no real dramas and I'm really happy because I didn't expect to have such a big gap. It's nice to drive here and tomorrow should be another good day for us.”
While Tänak will start Saturday's final six stages with a healthy advantage, the battle for second place between Tänak's team-mate Timmu Kõrge and Russian star Alexey Lukyanuk is set to rage until the finish in Tartu on Saturday night. Estonian Kõrge is 3.2secs ahead of his rival, who has capitalised on his Mitsubishi Lancer's superior top speed but lost time with a spin on stage two.
Estonian Rainer Aus is fourth and second in the ERC Production Car Cup behind Lukyanuk in another rapid Lancer with ERC title leader Esapekka Lappi (Finland) fifth and Sepp Wiegand (Germany) sixth. The factory Škoda drivers are contesting auto24 Rally Estonia for the first time but their normally aspirated Fabia Super 2000s haven't quite packed the punch needed for the long straights on the superfast gravel tests.
Karl Kruuda is seventh having bemoaned a lack of performance from his Peugeot 208T16 for much of the day. Siim Plangi is eighth in a similar car – which he's using in competition for the first time – after a right-rear puncture on the opening test cost him precious seconds. Roland Murakas is ninth with Sébastien Chardonnet currently in tenth spot. However, the rising French star, who is using his ERC debut to sample alternative set-ups on his Citroën DS3 R5, is set to be penalised for starting the Tartu City stage out of order when he was delayed changing a puncture.
Kristian Sohlberg is twelfth overnight with Jaromír Tarabus currently in 14th having spent leg one opening the road for his rivals. Robert Consani was in a battle with the Czech when he retired after a jump on stage eight. Martin Kangur, Thursday's Qualifying Stage winner, was in second when he crashed heavily on stage two.
Sander Pärn holds an advantage of more than one minute in the ERC 2WD classification with Quentin Giordano second and Australian champion Eli Evans a strong third in his Honda Civic Type R.
Simone Tempestini is fourth, Fabio Andolfi sixth on a break from his ERC Junior campaign with defending champion Zoltán Bessenyey in seventh. Max Vatanen, the son of 1981 world champion and Estonian Automobile Union president Ari Vatanen, is eleventh in class.