Elfyn Evans stormed to victory at Secto Rally Finland on Sunday afternoon to keep his chances of fighting for this year’s FIA World Rally Championship title alive.
A dramatic crash for WRC-leading team-mate Kalle Rovanperä propelled Evans into the lead on Friday afternoon and the Welshman reeled off a stunning seven back-to-back stage wins on Saturday to leave closest challenger Thierry Neuville trailing in his wake.
He extended the buffer further on Sunday to triumph by 39.1sec in a Toyota GR Yaris and, with maximum points for winning the closing Wolf Power Stage, Evans slashed Rovanperä’s points advantage from 55 to 25 with four rounds remaining.
"It's been a pretty good weekend," said Evans, for whom this was a seventh career win. "Of course we're sorry for the loss of Kalle at the start of the rally but after that it's been really fantastic to drive this car - it's such a joy to be behind the wheel of on these roads and we're really happy with this one.
"It's been a fantastic atmosphere and great to have the support behind us. Of course, in terms of the championship it's also not bad and we close the gap."
Evans’ Toyota Gazoo Racing team is based near the host city of Jyväskylä and victory extended its manufacturers’ championship lead over Hyundai Motorsport to 67 points.
Changeable conditions provided furious action on the season’s fastest roads with early challengers Ott Tänak and Esapekka Lappi both joining Rovanperä on Friday’s list of retirements. Engine failure sidelined Tänak’s M-Sport Ford Puma while Lappi crashed his Hyundai into a tree.
Neuville enjoyed one of his strongest performances on Finland’s flat-out terrain but ultimately had no answer to Evans’ rapid pace. Remaining third in the championship after round nine, the Belgian finished with a hefty 57.6sec gap to the Toyota of Takamoto Katsuta behind.
Katsuta duelled relentlessly with Hyundai rival Teemu Suninen. The latter went all in, bravely opting to save weight by not carrying a spare wheel through the four-stage finale. But that still wasn’t enough to relegate Katsuta, who celebrated his fourth career podium and ended 4.3sec clear.
Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala made a popular return to top-level competition after more than three years away. The Finn was never really in the thick of the podium battle but consistency rewarded him with fifth overall.
High attrition at the sharp end enabled Oliver Solberg, driving a Škoda Fabia RS Rally2, to claim sixth overall ahead of WRC2 victor Sami Pajari. Eighth place went to WRC2 runner-up Adrien Fourmaux while Nikolay Gryazin and Andreas Mikkelsen completed the top 10.
The action continues on gravel next month with the legendary EKO Acropolis Rally Greece, based in Lamia from 7 - 10 September.
1. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris 2h 33m 11.3s
2. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +39.1s
3. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +1m 36.7s
4. T Suninen / M Markkula FIN Hyundai i20 N +1m 41.0s
5. J-M Latvala / J Hänninen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +4m 9.4s
6. O Solberg / E Edmondson SWE Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +9m 33.6
Drivers' championship standings (after round 9 of 13):
1. K Rovanperä 170pts
2. E Evans 145pts
3. T Neuville 134pts