Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera (above) is on course for a remarkable victory at WRC Acropolis Rally Greece after Saturday’s brutal penultimate leg forced leaders Thierry Neuville and Sebastien Ogier into retirement.
A furious fight in the morning became a matter of survival on the afternoon’s loop of stages as heat and punishing rock-strewn roads took a heavy toll in the 10th round of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship.
Overnight leader Neuville was a relatively comfortable 10.9s clear when he thumped a deep pothole and shattered his Hyundai i20 N Rally1’s right-front suspension on the first stage of the afternoon. The Belgian had trailed reigning WRC champ and 2023 championship leader Rovanpera by 36 points coming into the event, but with only three more rounds after Greece, his slim title hopes appear to be shattered.
Neuville’s demise left eight-time WRC champ Ogier, who’s running only a part-time WRC program in 2023, seemingly in control in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1. But the Frenchman, who entered Saturday’s leg-closing Eleftherohori 2 stage 12.4s ahead of Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Rovanpera, swiped a rock which destroyed his left-rear suspension. He crabbed out of the stage, but retired on the final road section, while Rovanpera moved into a familiar spot at the top of the leaderboard.
Sebastien Ogier’s attempts at repairs after hitting a final-stage rock would prove in vain. WRC photo
Rovanpera will start the final leg with a lead of more than two minutes over Hyundai Motorsport Dani’s Sordo, and completing the victory on Sunday would move the 22-year-old Finn another step closer to clinching back-to-back WRC titles.
“There was a lot happening at the front today,” said Rovanpera as news of Ogier’s issue reached him. “It was a nice battle of course, but not the easiest to push with Seb because we had the championship to think about. I think we had a good day; we were fast, but we also kept the car in one piece.”
There was drama throughout the field as Rovanpera’s closest championship challenger, Toyota teammate Elfyn Evans, limped to the finish of the morning’s final stage, Eleftherohori 1, in EV mode when his hybrid GR Yaris began overheating. Having plummeted to fifth overall, the Welshman hauled himself back up the order, only to be demoted to third by Sordo’s Hyundai in the final stage.
Sordo had ended Friday’s opening leg down in seventh overall, but crept up the order as those around him struck trouble. Cautious rather than spectacular, the Spaniard headed to the overnight halt with a 5.0s lead over Evans.
Dani Sordo kept his head as others encountered dramas and now holds second for Hyundai. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Despite having 3m40s in time penalties for being late out of Friday’s tire fitting zone after a water pump issue, M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 driver Ott Tanak enjoyed a clean day in comparison to his rivals and climbed from ninth to fourth overall, passing fifth- and sixth-placed Esapekka Lappi and Takamoto Katsuta in the process.
A transmission failure left Lappi’s Hyundai with only rear-wheel drive, while a fraught run through Karoutes 2 saw Katsuta stop twice to perform wheel changes on his GR Yaris.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Andreas Mikkelsen produced one of the strongest drives of his WRC career to climb from 12th to first in class.
After suffering three punctures on Friday, nobody could have blamed Mikkelsen for writing off his chances of claiming victory. But the Norwegian was far from down and out, and proceeded to gun his Skoda Fabia RS to fastest WRC2 times on all of Saturday’s stages — leapfrogging Gus Greensmith’s similar car in the day’s final stage to carry a miniscule 0.4s advantage into Sunday’s final leg.
Andreas Mikkelsen fought back from his Friday punctures to take the WRC2 lead. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Overnight WRC2 leader Yohan Rossel had topped the standings throughout the morning, but fell to third when his Citroen C3 sustained tire damage on the day’s penultimate stage. The Frenchman, who trails Mikkelsen by five points in the WRC2 title race, was more than one minute behind the leaders at close of play.
Sunday’s three-stage final leg totals a short, sharp, but potentially decisive 26.33 competitive miles north-west of the Lamia rally HQ and begins with the classic Tarzan test. Double runs of Grammeni round out the event, the second of which forms the Wolf Power Stage where bonus points are available.
WRC Acropolis Rally Greece, leading positions after Day Two, SS12
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h29m40.5s
2 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m04.4s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m09.4s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Puma Rally1) +4m49.7s
5 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +6m16.2s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +7m02.2s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +8m51.1s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +8m51.5s
9 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +9m47.6s
10 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +9m56.3s
Check out WRC.com, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ All Live subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.