Finnish driver completes a clean sweep of stage wins to distance Belgian rival Thierry Neuville.
Kalle Rovanperä took a huge stride towards his third consecutive Rally Estonia victory with a supreme performance at the Baltic fixture on Saturday.
The 22-year-old, who became the youngest WRC event winner in history on the country’s superfast gravel roads two years ago, reeled off nine consecutive benchmark times to demoralise Hyundai rival and early leader Thierry Neuville.
Reigning champion Rovanperä relegated Neuville early on Friday afternoon and started this penultimate leg with a 3.0sec advantage. Inspired by the cleaner line offered by his later starting position, he was simply untouchable.
The Finn outpaced Neuville on every single stage to stretch his advantage to 34.9sec, his Saturday surge strengthened further when the Hyundai i20 N driver sustained a slow puncture in Otepää 2. He stands to extend his FIA World Rally Championship lead at this eighth round barring any major dramas through Sunday’s finale.
"For sure the feeling is nice," smiled Rovanperä. "I have really enjoyed the afternoon especially, it has been really nice. The car is working well and these are my favourite stages of the entire calendar, so why wouldn't I be enjoying them at full speed? A lot of fans as well, it's really cool."
Neuville admitted he had been too hesitant in the morning’s opening pair of stages but still posted second-best times on five occasions. He conceded that overhauling Rovanperä in the closing four speed tests would be a long shot.
"There's just a little bit missing to match the pace of Kalle," he said, "but without the puncture I think it would have been a perfect day."
Esapekka Lappi completed the podium 10.5sec behind team-mate Neuville after a thrilling day-long battle with Elfyn Evans. Evans, driving a GR Yaris, had reduced Lappi’s buffer to just seven-tenths of a second by the day’s midpoint but fell to 7.3sec behind the charging Finn over the course of the afternoon.
Teemu Suninen continued his trouble-free i20 N Rally1 debut to hold a distant fifth overall, 48.8sec back from Welshman Evans. Behind him, M-Sport Ford's Pierre-Louis Loubet was a further 44.0sec in arrears and collected a five-second time penalty for breaching hybrid strategy rules on Friday.
Seventh-placed Takamoto Katsuta moved to within 7.0sec of Loubet despite having a scare when his Toyota refused to restart at the finish line of Kanepi 1. Penalty-hit Ott Tänak, meanwhile, climbed to eighth overall on home soil.
Andreas Mikkelsen is on course to claim his second WRC2 triumph of the season and held ninth overall in a Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 while Sami Pajari completed the top 10 in his similar car.
Sunday’s final leg is the shortest but still features a healthy 61.08km of action. Two identical loops of two stages lie in wait before the podium ceremony in Tartu. The rally-closing Kambja test forms the Wolf Power Stage, with bonus points available to the fastest crews.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris 2h 5m 29.3s
2. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +34.9s
3. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Hyundai i20 N +45.4s
4. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +52.7s
5. T Suninen / M Markkula FIN Hyundai i20 N +1m 41.5s
6. P Loubet / N Gilsoul FRA Ford Puma +2m 25.5s