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11 Aug 2014

FIA ERC auto24 Rally Estonia 2014

Forests, Lakes and Rally Cars

Text and Photos: Reinis Babrovskis

Estonia joined the FIA ERC 2014 Championship as a newcomer hosting the round 7 Auto24 Rally Estonia 2014 on July 17-19. The Northern country of the Baltic States shares very similar weather and road conditions to the neighbouring Finland, with very fast, smooth and open gravel roads; however, multiple jumps and some very narrow, twisty forest sections were thrown in for a bit of challenge.

When interviewed The ERC 2012 Champion Juho Hänninen admitted that some of the stages are more fun and faster than those of Finland. Drivers had to tackle 15 gravel stages over two days with the total of 231.55 competitive kilometres. 
Rally is a very popular in Estonia and the expectations from the spectators were high; despite organizing the event for the first time as part of ERC, the organizers managed to pull of tremendous work and the rally was a huge success. 

I certainly could not overlook this rally and as soon as the dates were confirmed the road trip was on the books. Equipped with energy drinks, beer, some junk food, tents, camera equipment, sat nav, more beer and great mood we set off to tackle the long road trip to Estonia.
We reached the Rally HQ town Otepää late at night just to find out the tickets and rally programme couldn't be purchased at that time of the night. We didn’t give up and proceeded to the second largest city in Estonia – Tartu which played a huge role in the rally as well – hosting the ceremonial start/finish and a super special city stage and managed to obtain the programme and tickets there. With the first sunlight we were finally happily camped stage side and ready to destroy some beers and await the SS1.

With some very impressive names in the entry list like Ott Tänak, Esapekka Lappi, Karl Kruuda, Alexey Lukyanuk and Sebastien Chardonnet we knew from the very beginning there will be some spectacular fights and racing on display. Prior to the rally the Škoda Motorsport driver and the current ERC championship leader Esapekka Lappi admitted he entered the rally to secure the vital championship points while avoiding any unnecessary risks, following the bad accident in the Geko Ypres Rally. Ott Tänak armed with the Fiesta R5 was there to prepare for the upcoming WRC round in Finland. Siim Plangi entered the rally for the first time in an R5 Peugeot, but he sounded very confident saying he is well used to the Estonian roads. Being a gravel rally no driver wanted to be the cleaner for the other drivers and qualifying stage was of great importance. Thursday’s qualifying stage was won by Martin Kangur in his Fiesta S2000 beating all the R5 drivers. He was closely followed by Markko Märtin's MM-Motorsport R5 Fiesta, piloted by Tänak, while the German Sepp Wiegand was in third behind the wheel of Škoda Fabia S2000. Martin chose the 11th starting position, while Tänak opted for the 16th and Wiegand 14th. Later that night a big crowd gathered in the Northern City of Tartu for the opening ceremony where 61 crews passed the line.

Leg 1

The morning brought us a lovely sunshine with the force of +22C and every corner of the SS1was packed with keen spectators. We chose a lovely straight beside a lake, followed by a chicane. The marshals kindly let us enjoy the action from the inside of the wide corner entering the chicane. The first cars to come were the historics and I must say it was superb seeing VW Golf Mk1, Mercedes Benz and Audi Quattro just drifting round the corner in full attack. In the ERC Ott Tänak set the pace with a 3 second lead despite half a spin on the stage. Martin Kangur secured the second place with a couple of mistakes, while the Russian Alexey Lukyanuk managed third in his Mitsubishi Evo X, keeping well up against the modern machinery. It was a very safe start by Lappi and he only managed to demonstrate the 7th fastest time. Even though we stood very close to the start line the local Plangi already managed to have a very big moment, but luckily got away with just a flat tire and minor body damage. 
Crews proceeded to the 24.2km long SS2 which turned out to be disastrous for the local driver Martin Kangur who badly rolled his R5 Fiesta on a six gear corner, losing any hope to fight for the victory. Luckily both crews walked away without any injuries, but the car was totalled. The mad Russian Alexey had a close call himself with an insane long left corner drift, but managed to hold on and set the 5th fastest time. The T16 Peugeot of Plangi still not keeping up with the pace; Plangi in the post stage interview admitted he was suffering from confidence loss after the accident on SS1. The stage proved too difficult for Lappi who only managed 10th fastest time. Aus in his Production Class 2.0 turbo Evo IX used the power and speed to his advantage and was second fastest on the stage, just beaten by Ott.
After the morning service the crews returned to tackle the same stages again. Second time round the crews speed and attack increased and one driver that impressed everybody, including us, most was Lukyanuk. Rally radio announced his speedo needle displayed a mind blowing 197km/h at some parts on the stage. He admitted the drivers do need a lot of courage to attack the corners at these speeds. Tänak set yet another fastest time and was leading Korge by a safe 29.9 second cushion after just 4 morning stages. Alexey Lukyanuk was close in the third.
Following the midday service break the crews faced the short SS5 and SS6 stages. The young Russian was on a mission and set the fastest time on stage 5 and second fastest on stage 6 fighting very hard to climb to the second overall. 

The evening stages SS7 and SS8 were located near the rally HQ town of Otepää. Lukyanuk didn't relax and managed the third fastest time on stage 7 and second in 8 closing the gap even more between him and Korge. 
Day finished with the super special stage in the beautiful Tartu city centre. The city stage known as Mickey Mouse was 1.3km long and more than 30 thousand spectators on gathered round to hear and see the rally cars screaming through the city centre. The stage was more suited for the R5 cars and there was no surprise Lukyanuk only managed to set the 11th fastest time. Even though Tänak secured another stage victory his joy was cut short by a fuel pressure alarm, luckily he was able to travel back to the service and resolve the issue.
The day was not finished there – the spectators were welcomed to return to Otepää to the rally after party, but no matter how tempting that sounded we were covered in dust, hungry and exhausted so it was time to find a campsite. After traveling through some areas and deserted roads that reminded us the scenes from movies “Hills have eyes” and “Wrong Turn” we finally safely camped beside SS10, the fire was lit, sausages on the grill, feet up and beers opened and talk about the crazy rally we saw on the day could start.

Leg 2

After the breakfast we decided to find some shop nearby to ignite us with some much needed coffee. As soon as we set off on the stage (that was not supposed to be live for another 3 hours) much to our surprise we saw marshals waving at us. Not thinking much of it we waved back, until we remembered about the HISTORICS that start in 10 minutes we forgot about! The Passat was then put on a mission to complete the stage flat out as well. Sadly we never got the stage time. But luckily it all ended well and after some lovely coffee break, we returned to the Red Bull jump in Stage 10.

With the first couple of cars into the stage the heavens opened and as soon as the drivers reached the Red Bull jump it was water everywhere; many drivers complained of aquaplaning and said they can't recall such weather conditions. It seemed that Tänak was not overly affected by it as he managed to secure yet another stage victory.
SS11 sadly claimed another victim; Craig Breen's car driven by Plangi developed a gearbox problem. With the weather conditions improving Lukyanuk changed his swimming speed to a flying speed and got another stage win. Tänak's safe 1st place suddenly got threatened for a moment as the car loses power but he managed to hold on to the lead and got the car to the service. It turned out the car’s FIA control valve was leaking thus providing no Turbo power for the engine. Plangi's mechanics did a miracle and swapped the broken gearbox and clutch in astonishing 33 minute time frame, and even with the 30" penalty for the 3 minute late checkout, it was a massive achievement and allowed him to continue the rally.

After the service cars returned to tackle the same stages and yet again these stages proved very difficult and unforgiving. A rock on the inside of a left hander on SS12 damaged Plangi's and Wiegands cars causing nasty punctures. Eskappi Lappi hit the same rock but managed to hold on. On the second pass of the SS13 Lukyanuk kept applying pressure on Korge and reduced the gap to 0.01s. With just two stages to go Tänak took it easy, so all the attention turned to the fight of the weekend - Lukyanuk vs Korge. SS14 was the game changer and for the first time Lukyanuk managed to overtake Korge and claim the second place overall. Another local driver Jeets faced a very painful end to the rally when his car under steered and ended up stopping harshly on a huge rock; stage was cancelled and the crew was rushed to the hospital. Luckily no major injuries were sustained. If the weekend for Plangi wasn't bad already, on the ultimate stage of the rally he managed to roll his T16 in the very first corner. 
Another driver that will try to put this rally behind him was Esapekka Lappi as he only managed to secure the 5th place overall. Aus with his Evo IX managed to outrun many R5 cars and secured the 4th. The battle lasted till the end and it was Lukyanuk that managed to win in the end securing second and leaving Korge in third. Tänak had a solid performance throughout the weekend and brought back a well-deserved victory.
It was a trip I certainly won’t forget and certainly will try to do again next year, ERC Estonia – I thank you!

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