Just four stages stand between Kalle Rovanpera (above) and back-to-back FIA World Rally Championship crowns after his only remaining title rival, Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Elfyn Evans, crashed out of the Central European Rally on Saturday.
Having dominated Thursday’s treacherous stages, run over muddy asphalt in the Czech Republic, to build a commanding lead on the WRC’s newest event, 23-year-old Rovanpera was already doing more than enough to successfully defend his 2022 drivers’ crown.
With the action moving to Austria and Germany for Saturday, a spin on the morning’s second stage allowed Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville to slash the Finn’s advantage by more than half. But the dynamic completely changed later in the morning when Evans, who’d been sitting third overall in his GR Yaris Rally1, crashed out of contention.
Evans needed to outscore his teammate by at least one point on this penultimate round to keep the fight going to the WRC’s Japan finale next month, but he came unstuck on a slippery right-hand bend and slid into a wooden barn (see video below), damaging the left-rear suspension and going no further.
The Welshman will restart on Sunday in a desperate bid to salvage bonus points from the Wolf Power Stage. But even then, Rovanpera would need to post a non-finish — a seemingly unlikely scenario as things stand — for Evans’ long-shot title bid to continue.
Sacrificing his chances of the outright rally win to focus on his championship prospects, Rovanpera dialed back his speed following Evans’ exit. Neuville, as a result, was left to build a 26.2s lead in his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 at the conclusion of the penultimate leg of the all-asphalt counter.
“It’s good to be at the finish of the day,” said Rovanpera, 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 [asphalt] rally conditions I have ever seen.”
Neuville, who’s 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.”
With Kalle Rovanpera easing off, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville looks set for victory on the inaugural Central European Rally. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Ott Tanak ensured that all three Rally1 manufacturers ended the day on the provisional podium, bringing his M-Sport Ford Puma to the overnight halt in a lonely third overall. A non-functioning handbrake caused the Estonian some frustrations in the day’s final stage and he trails Rovanpera by more than one minute, with Sebastien Ogier’s GR Yaris another 31.1s behind in fourth.
The battle for fifth place continues to rage 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 overnight position by 10.9s.
Completing the Rally1 runners, M-Sport young gun hotshot Gregoire Munster was seventh overall, ahead of the similar Puma of Pierre-Louis Loubet.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, M-Sport Fiesta driver Adrien Fourmaux is the leading runner in Rally 2-spec equipment, holding ninth overall, but isn’t registered for WRC2 championship points this weekend. Instead, one place behind the Frenchman, Emil Lindholm’s Hyundai i20 N leads the class.
Emil Lindholm’s Hyundai i20 N continues to lead in WRC2. Behind him, the title drama is building… McKlein/Motorsport Images)
Behind Lindholm — as in, way behind — Andreas Mikkelsen is within touching distance of clinching the WRC2 title, despite trailing the class leader by more than 13 minutes after Saturday’s stages.
Mikkelsen’s weekend on the all-new, all-asphalt event has not gone to plan so far. The Norwegian driver languishes 16th overall among the WRC2 runners after pitching his Skoda Fabia RS into the undergrowth on Friday morning.
He then suffered another time-consuming spin on Saturday morning, but the demise of Citroen C3 driver Yohan Rossel and Gus Greensmith’s current standing of fifth in class means that Mikkelsen can still wrap up the title on Sunday. As it stands, he must outscore fellow Skoda driver Greensmith in the rally-closing, bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage to seal the deal.
Should Greensmith climb to fourth, it gets more complicated. Mikkelsen would then need to win the Power Stage, at the same time being reliant on Greensmith not scoring any bonus points. And, if Greensmith makes it inside the top three, the title will be decided in Japan next month.
Sunday’s final leg consists of two stages, each run twice, across two countries. Bohmerwald in Austria is first up, before the cars cross the border for Passauer Land in Germany, the second pass of which forms the Wolf Power Stage.
WRC Central European Rally, positions after Leg Two, SS14
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 2h18m34.5s
2 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +26.2s
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Puma Rally1) +1m49.1s
4 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m20.2s
5 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m47.9s
6 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m58.8s
7 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +3m52.2s
8 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Benjamin Veillas (Ford Puma Rally1) +9m05.8s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Fiesta MkII – RC2, non-points) +9m12.3s
10 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hamalainen (Hyundai i20 N – WRC2 leader) +9m18.8s
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