Welsh driver wins seven out of eight stages to move clear of Thierry Neuville.
Elfyn Evans made major strides towards his second Secto Rally Finland triumph with a masterful attack through Saturday’s penultimate leg.
He was fastest on seven out of eight gravel road stages in the lightning-fast Finnish forests to transform what started as a 6.9sec buffer into a commanding 32.1sec stronghold in a Toyota GR Yaris, leaving Hyundai i20 N rival Thierry Neuville trailing in his wake.
Rain showers early in the day played to the Welshman’s favour and, while Neuville grappled with wheel spin in the wet conditions, Evans excelled. He was equally at home in the repeated afternoon loop where the drying gravel roads became increasingly rutted.
With championship leader Kalle Rovanperä already sidelined by a crash on Friday, victory at this ninth WRC round is essential for Evans - currently second in the points - to keep his fading title hopes alive. He was delighted with his performance on a demanding day that contained more than half the rally’s competitive distance.
"Obviously it's a nice position to be in but of course there are still more stages to come tomorrow," Evans said. "The focus will be on that now and we'll try to keep doing the same."
Although Neuville struggled to get his i20’s set-up completely dialled in with the changeable conditions, the Belgian was consistently quicker than the remainder of the field. Toyota man Takamoto Katsuta, his closest challenger, lagged almost one minute behind.
Katsuta dropped behind Hyundai's Teemu Suninen after spinning in Päijälä but reclaimed the final podium spot in SS15. He yielded the position again in the following test but surged back in front by posting a benchmark time through the Vekkula finale. The pair were split by 6.4sec at close of play.
Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala was fifth, two minutes further back. The 38-year-old, who is making his first WRC start since February 2020, overshot a junction in SS17 but relished the chance to drive on his home roads.
Oliver Solberg is not registered to score WRC2 points this week but climbed to sixth overall in a Fabia RS Rally2. He headed Sami Pajari, the category leader, by 12.5sec after Jari Huttunen retired his similar Škoda with a technical issue in the afternoon.
Just four tests covering 51.64km comprise Sunday’s finale. Drivers face two runs each on the classic roads of Moksi-Sahloinen and Himos-Jämsä. The second pass of the latter forms the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris 2h 8m 7.0s
2. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +32.1s
3. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +1m 27.8s
4. T Suninen / M Markkula FIN Hyundai i20 N +1m 34.2s
5. J-M Latvala / J Hänninen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +3m 39.5s
6. O Solberg / E Edmondson SWE Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +8m 5.0s