Just four stages stand between Kalle Rovanperä and back-to-back FIA World Rally Championship titles after his only title rival Elfyn Evans crashed out of Central European Rally on Saturday.
Having dominated Thursday’s treacherous tests in the Czech Republic to build a commanding rally lead, 23-year-old Rovanperä was already doing more than enough to successfully defend his 2022 WRC drivers’ crown.
A spin on Saturday’s second stage allowed Thierry Neuville to slash the Finn’s advantage by more than half, but the dynamic changed later in the morning when Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris team-mate Evans, who had been sitting third overall, crashed out the rally.
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 in a desperate bid 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. Neuville was left to build a 26.2-second overnight lead in his Hyundai i20 N.
“It’s good to be at the finish of the day,” said Rovanperä, who simply needs a drama-free run through the 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 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 to the end in a lonely third overall. A non-functioning handbrake caused the M-Sport man some frustrations in SS14, and he trailed Rovanperä by over one minute with Sébastien Ogier 31.1sec behind.
The battle for fifth place was raging 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 10.9sec.
Puma hotshot Grégoire Munster was seventh overall ahead of Pierre-Louis Loubet. Adrien Fourmaux and Emil Lindholm, leader of the WRC2 category in a Hyundai i20 N Rally2, completed the leaderboard.
Sunday’s finale boasts two stages, each run twice, across two countries. Böhmerwald in Austria is first up before Passauer Land in Germany, the second pass of which forms the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
Leading positions after Saturday: 1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe Hyundai i20 N 2h 18m 34.5s 2. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen Toyota GR Yaris +26.2s 3. O Tänak / M Järveoja Ford Puma +1m 49.1s 4. S Ogier / V Landais Toyota GR Yaris +2m 20.2s 5. T Katsuta / A Johnston Toyota GR Yaris +2m 47.9s 6. T Suninen / M Markkula Hyundai i20 N +2m 58.8s