After treacherous Czech conditions on Friday
Kalle Rovanperä made full use of his road position to open up an advantage of 36.4s at the completion of the Central European Rally’s first full leg, despite the challenging stage and weather conditions in the Czech Republic throughout Friday.
Heavy rain and mud greeted the FIA World Rally Championship crews as they tackled six special stages across the border from Germany, where the event is based.
Opening the road, points leader Rovanperä made the most of the less polluted surface offered by his running order.
He reached the mid-leg tyre fitting zone 29.2s clear of Toyota team-mate and title rival Elfyn Evans after winning all three of the morning’s super-slippery stages. And the Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid-driving Finn’s domination continued into the repeated afternoon loop when, in conditions more consistent for drivers throughout the field, he widened the gap further.
As it stands, Rovanperä is poised to claim his second-consecutive WRC title at this penultimate round of the season unless Evans – who languishes 47.2s behind him in third overall - can stage a remarkable comeback.
“It has been super tricky today,” Rovanperä said. “Luckily, the weather was on our side for once with the starting position – it was good to be the first car on the road. We can be happy with our day.”
Neuville initially led after Thursday’s pair of stages but fell to third on Friday morning after struggling with his car’s set-up, which he said was “too aggressive”. The Belgian felt his i20 N Rally1 Hybrid would have benefitted from softer suspension springs but, with no opportunity for service between loops, changes were not possible.
Nevertheless, he maintained the pressure on Evans and, after overtaking the Welshman to claim the runner-up spot in the final stage, ended 10.8s in front.
Also feeling at odds with his car’s handling was M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid driver Ott Tänak, who ended a lonely fourth overall – 43.2s adrift of Evans but with 56.4s in hand over fifth-placed Toyota driver Takamoto Katsuta.
Sébastien Ogier’s hopes of winning his ‘home’ rally disintegrated early in the day when the Munich-based Frenchman limped through the opening stage with tyre damage caused by a broken wheel. He fought back to claim sixth, just 3.2s ahead of Teemu Suninen.
Aside from Neuville, Suninen was the only other Hyundai driver still competing after his compatriot Esapekka Lappi crashed heavily from third overall on SS5. Finn Suninen, starting his first asphalt rally in the car, placed seventh overall ahead of Puma driver Grégoire Munster.
Pierre-Louis Loubet dropped more than five minutes on SS8 when he went off the road and picked up wheel damage.
Emil Lindholm leads FIA WRC2 for Hyundai Motorsport N followed by FIA WRC2 Challenger pacesetter Erik Cais (Škoda Fabia RS Rally2) with Nicolas Ciamin in third in another Fabia. Filip Kohn leads FIA WRC3, while Armin Kremer – co-driven by daughter Ella – heads the WRC Masters’ Cup category.
Two stages in Austria, Schärdinger Innviertel and Mühltal, are up first on today with the 27.15-kilometre Mühltal test the rally’s longest. It’s then back into Germany for the Knaus Tabbert Bayerischer Wald test prior to midday service in Passau. Saturday morning’s stages are repeated in the afternoon with the rerun of Knaus Tabbert Bayerischer Wald getting under way after sunset. SS9, Schärdinger Innviertel, is up first from 08:15 CET.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris 1h 13m 5.1s
2. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +36.4s
3. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +47.2s
4. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Ford Puma +1m 30.4s
5. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +2m 26.8s
6. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +2m 35.9s