Nearly six months, a revamped calendar and a very different world later and this weekend the FIA World Rally Championship finally heads for round four as Estonia gets sets to host its first ever WRC event.
After Rally Mexico ended a day early back in March as the global COVID-19 pandemic began to swing into force, nobody could have predicted where we would be come mid-September.
Several rounds of the originally planned season, including the series’ return to Africa and Kenya for the first time since 2002 and the traditional events in both Finland and Wales have had to be cancelled, but the championship does at least continue following the pandemic.
Estonia itself, and after hosting a promotional event for the championship last season, has only been added to the calendar since the pandemic began, and the gravel event will be ran over a condensed three day schedule around the rally’s base of Otepää.
After a shakedown on Friday morning, the one and only stage on the first day of action takes place later that evening with a short super special near the service area at Raadi.
The next day sees a action packed return to a full day of action, with five stages, including the rally’s longest Prangli test, each repeated twice throughout the day.
Sunday then sees the crews head for six more stages, including the Kambja stage which also doubles up as the rally concluding Power Stage.
WRC/Rally1: Ogier Leads Championship as Tänak Heads Home
So far in 2020, the championship has seen three different winners from the opening three events, with Sebastien Ogier’s win in Mexico helping him to lead the series ahead of Toyota teammate and round two victor Elfyn Evans.
With Thierry Neuville having won the season opening Rallye Monte Carlo, one name that is missing on that list is defending champion Ott Tänak.
Although this weekend is in circumstances that obviously the home hero would much rather prefer not to be happening, the Estonian does get to compete on a WRC event in his home country.
If the South Estonia Rally, where the majority of the WRC field returned to action following the global pandemic, is anything to go by, Tänak appears to be the man to beat. He took the win ahead of Kalle Rovanperä and Ogier and will be hoping to carry that pace into this weekend.
One man wanting to put that event behind him is the aforementioned Evans. The Welshman walked away from a mammoth accident that all but destroyed his Yaris WRC and will be looking to continue what had been a fine start to the season before the pandemic brought the sport to a halt.
Evans and Estonia already have a difficult relationship, after last season he injured his back after a heavy landing during the promotional event in the championship. He ended up being out until his home event in Wales in October.
The country’s gravel stages have been said to be very similar to that of Finland’s and one man hoping that will be the case is Craig Breen. The Hyundai driver was set to return to the series in Finland before the pandemic struck and instead gets his opportunity to impress this weekend instead.
Irishman Breen has a strong finishing record in Finland and is arguably the most rally-sharp entrant in the class after competing in the opening two rounds of the FIA European Rally Championship last month.
Hyundai have four i20 Coupe WRC’s entered, with the trio of Neuville, Tänak and Breen being joined by WRC2 regular Pierre Louis Loubet, who will be looking to gain experience and hopefully finish the event without any problems.
Toyota also have an extra car lined up for round four of the season, with Takamoto Katsuta continuing his transition to WRC machinery with his third appearance in a Yaris WRC.
M-Sport Ford’s duo of Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen also took part in the South Estonia event, but both didn’t drive cars prepared by the Cumbrian team as they were focusing on their own Return to Rally Stages on the same weekend.
Lappi in particular will be looking to hit the ground running as the season restarts after his dramatic retirement from Mexico when the Fiesta WRC caught fire. The Finn had appeared to just be getting to grips with the car before that; this idea being backed up with a fifth-place finish in Sweden.
Both him and teammate Suninen are optimistic ahead of the Estonian event and could surprise a few doubters with two strong results. Gus Greensmith also gets another appearance for the team this weekend after competing in both Mexico and Monte Carlo.
WRC2/WRC3: Østberg Looks to Extend WRC2 Lead, Large Entry in WRC3
Mads Østberg has a nine-point advantage over rival Nioklay Gryazin after the first three rounds of the 2020 WRC2 championship, with all but one of the series’ regulars competing in Estonia.
The duo both competed along with WRC3’s Oliver Solberg in the second round of the ERC, Rally Liepāja, last month and appear set to continue the close battle that has been the headline news so far in the class.
Østberg finished the stronger of the pair on that event, taking second behind winner Solberg, and was even supposed to compete in the opening round of the new Projekt E rallycross series for Citroen before a delay in parts being delivered has postponed that until later in the season.
Another man who has turned to rallycross to keep sharp is Pontus Tidemand. The former WRC2 champion now is also a Euro Rallycross regular and will be one of the more ready drivers heading to Estonia.
M-Sport take one driver in the form of Adrien Fourmaux to the event, fresh from finishing in the top three (on the road) in their Return to Rally Stages event, with Ole Christian Veiby and Eyvind Brynildsen completing the WRC2 entrants.
Oliver Solberg has to be the favourite for the WRC3 win this weekend. In the ERC events he’s competed in post-lockdown, he’s finished in the top three in Rome while taking the win in Latvia at the same place he made history in 2019 by becoming the championships youngster ever rally winner.
It certainly won’t be a one man show however, as a total of 22 drivers are set to compete. Picking out names to back for a strong result is anything but easy, but Jari Huttunen and youngster Marco Bulacia Wilkinson began the season well and will be looking to restart how they left off.
Again, if you were following the ERC events last month, you’ll recognise a lot of names in the WRC3 class this weekend. Eerik Pietarinen could be a man in particular to watch, considering his fine pace in the ERC and could battle Solberg and co. for a top three spot.
The FIA Junior World Rally Championship also returns to action in Estonia, with a preview for that series coming later this week on The Checkered Flag.
Rally Estonia, the fourth round of the revised FIA World Rally Championship, gets underway on Friday evening.