Kalle Rovanpera appeared oblivious to Friday’s punishing conditions on the WRC’s Central European Rally as he stormed to a commanding 36.4s lead over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville.
The 23-year-old Finn (above) sits on the verge of claiming his second consecutive FIA World Rally Championship, with Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Elfyn Evans the only other driver still mathematically in contention.
If Rovanpera matches or betters Evans’ score at this 12th and penultimate round, title number two is guaranteed — and after Friday’s wet-weather masterclass, who’d bet against him?
A brand-new event for 2023, the all-asphalt Central European Rally includes stages spread across three countries — Germany, Austria and Czech Republic, with the latter taking center stage on Friday.
Heavy rain and perilous mud thrown on to the road by corner-cutting cars challenged the crews as they tackled six special stages on the rally’s first full day.
Running first on the road courtesy of his WRC points lead, Rovanpera took full advantage of the less polluted surface offered by his starting position. He reached the mid-leg tire-fitting zone 29.2s clear of the field after winning all three of the morning’s treacherously slippy tests in his GR Yaris Rally1.
His domination continued into the repeated afternoon loop when, in conditions more consistent for drivers throughout the field — as in, everyone now had to contend with the mud thrown on the roads during the morning loop — he widened the gap further.
As it stands, Rovanpera is poised to claim the title unless he makes a major error during the remaining two days, or Evans, who languishes 47.2s behind him in third overall, can stage a remarkable comeback.
Sitting third overall, Elfyn Evans will need to ramp it up to keep his WRC title hopes alive. Jaanus Ree / Red Bull Content Pool
“It has been super tricky today,” Rovanpera 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 short super special stages, but fell to third on Friday morning after struggling with his car’s setup. The Belgian felt his i20 N Rally1 would have benefited 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 passing the Welshman to claim the runner-up spot in the final stage, ended the day 10.8s in front.
Also feeling at odds with his car’s handling was M-Sport Ford Puma driver Ott Tanak, who ended the leg a lonely fourth overall — 43.2s adrift of Evans, but with 56.4s in hand over fifth-placed Toyota driver Takamoto Katsuta.
M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tanak, who won last time out in Chile, sits in a lonely fourth position. M-Sport photo
Sebastien Ogier’s hopes of winning his “home” rally disintegrated early in the day when the Munich-based Frenchman limped through the opening stage with tire damage caused by a broken wheel. The eight-time WRC champ, who is running a limited schedule with Toyota this season, fought back to hold an overnight sixth, just 3.2s ahead of Teemu Suninen’s Hyundai.
Aside from Neuville, Suninen was the only other Hyundai Rally1 driver remaining after fellow Finn Esapekka Lappi crashed heavily from third overall on the day’s third stage. Suninen, starting his first asphalt rally in the i20 N Rally1, placed seventh overall ahead of M-Sport Puma youngster Gregoire Munster.
Also having his patience tested was Pierre-Louis Loubet, who dropped more than five minutes on the day’s final stage when he went off the road and picked up wheel damage on his Puma.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Emil Lindholm topped the standings after Friday’s action — but there was trouble for all three of the main title protagonists.
Current WRC2 points leader Andreas Mikkelsen began this rally with a realistic opportunity to wrap up the title, and all was going well for the Norwegian driver as he led after Friday’s opener at Vlachovo Brezi.
But he plummeted down the order after going off the road in the very next test, losing more than 10 minutes as spectators desperately tried to free his Skoda Fabia RS from the Czech undergrowth. His problems handed Hyundai i20 N Rally2 driver Lindholm the rally lead and also means that the title will most likely be decided at next month’s season finale in Japan.
Things started well for WRC2 points leader Andreas Mikkelsen, but quickly went downhill. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Yohan Rossel, second in the points before this round, saw his victory hopes shattered when he crashed his Citroen C3 Rally2 into trees in the day’s first stage, while Gus Greensmith, another driver locked into the title fight, languished down in eighth in class after struggling with his Skoda’s setup.
Saturday’s action begins with two stages in Austria, before a quick hop across the border for the Knaus Tabbert Bayerischer Wald stage in Germany. After service in Passau, Germany, the cars head back to Austria and the loop is repeated once more.
WRC Central European Rally, positions after Leg One, SS8
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h13m05.1s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +36.4s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +47.2s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Puma Rally1) +1m30.4s
5 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m26.8s
6 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m35.9s
7 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m39.1s
8 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +2m59.1s
9 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hamalainen (Hyundai i20 N – WRC2 leader) +5m36.3s
10 Erik Cais/Daniel Trunkat (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +5m51.2s
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