Just four stages stand between Kalle Rovanperä and back-to-back FIA World Rally Championship crowns after his only remaining title rival Elfyn Evans crashed out of the Central European Rally yesterday.
Having dominated Friday’s challenging tests in the Czech Republic to build a commanding lead, 23-year-old Rovanperä was already doing more than enough to successfully defend his 2022 WRC drivers’ award.
A spin on Saturday’s second stage allowed Thierry Neuville to slash the Finn’s advantage by more than half, but the dynamic completely changed later in the morning when Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid team-mate Evans, who had been sitting third overall, crashed out of contention.
Evans needed to outscore his colleague by at least one point at this penultimate round to keep the fight going, but he came unstuck on a slippery right-hand bend and slid into a barn. The Welshman will restart on Sunday as he bids to salvage bonus points from the Wolf Power Stage.
Sacrificing his chances of the outright rally win to focus on his championship prospects, Rovanperä dialled back his speed after his team-mate dropped out. Neuville, as a result, was left to build a 26.2s overnight lead in his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid.
“It's good to be at the finish of the day,” said Rovanperä, who simply needs a drama-free run through Sunday’s closing stages to clinch the title. “It's tough out there. I think these are the most tough Tarmac rally conditions I have ever seen."
Neuville, who is in line to become the first-ever Central European Rally winner, added: “All afternoon we tried to manage the gap and I am happy to finish the day in the lead of the rally. We are following our target.”
Ott Tänak ensured that all three top-line manufacturers ended the day on the podium, bringing his Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid to the end in a lonely third overall. A non-functioning handbrake caused the M-Sport driver some frustrations on SS14, and he trailed Rovanperä by more than one minute with Sébastien Ogier 31.1s behind.
There has been a close battle for fifth place between Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen. Katsuta struggled to feel confident on the greasy asphalt roads in the morning but upped his pace in the afternoon to claim the position by 10.9s.
Grégoire Munster is seventh overall ahead of Pierre-Louis Loubet. Adrien Fourmaux and Emil Lindholm, leader of the FIA WRC2 category in a Hyundai i20 N Rally2, complete the overnight top 10.
Nicolas Ciamin heads Erik Cais by 2.6s in the battle to finish the Central European Rally as the top WRC2 Challenger. Filip Kohn and Armin Kremer are comfortably ahead in FIA WRC3 and the FIA WRC Masters’ Cup respectively.
To day’s deciding leg consists of two stages run twice, Böhmerwald in Austria and Passauer Land in Germany. They offer a combined competitive distance of 67.24 kilometres. The 16.37-kilometre Passauer Land test forms the Wolf Power Stage when it’s repeated at 12:15 CET. The riverside podium in Passau is due to begin at 14:30 CET.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N 2h 18m 34.5s
2. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +26.2s
3. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Ford Puma +1m 49.1s
4. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +2m 20.2s
5. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +2m 47.9s
6. T Suninen / M Markkula FIN Hyundai i20 N +2m 58.8s