Super sub Rovanpera closes in on WRC Rally Poland victory

Kalle Rovanpera is closing in on a potentially extraordinary WRC Rally Poland victory after a dominant second leg on Saturday saw Toyota’s reigning WRC champ seize the lead from Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen.

The 23-year-old Finn (above) ended Saturday with his GR Yaris Rally1 holding a 9.4s lead over Mikkelsen’s i20 N Rally1 with just four special stages and 40 competitive miles remaining in which to determine the winner of the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship on Sunday.

Rovanpera has elected to run a limited WRC schedule in 2024, with Poland’s super-fast gravel not originally on his calendar. But with Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Sebastien Ogier sidelined by a traffic accident during Tuesday’s recce, Rovanpera was pressed into service, carrying out a rushed recce with co-driver Jonne Halttunen and admitting to some trepidation on taking on the event’s high-speed stages. 


Nevertheless, on a day that saw multiple stages interrupted and delayed  by spectators getting too close to the action, Rovanpera racked up six fastest times and overturned the 1.8s advantage Mikkelsen had held over him on Friday night.

Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen had started Saturday with a slim lead, but couldn’t resist Kalle Rovanpera’s charge. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Tire wear threatened to undermine Rovanpera’s dominance in the hot temperatures of the afternoon’s repeated loop of stages. With the mercury nudging 85°F, the hard-compound Pirelli rubber that made up the bulk of Mikkelsen’s selection outlasted Rovanpera’s mix of four softs and one hard. But despite that, Rovanpera made the best of his remaining tires, even adding 4.2s to his lead in the leg-ending 13.92 Czarne 2 stage.

“I tried my best the whole day, and the afternoon was definitely more enjoyable when I knew what was coming,” Rovanpera said. “It will not be easy tomorrow; I think it will be tougher than today. Let’s hope for the best.”  

Mikkelsen dropped to third behind GR Yaris driver Elfyn Evans after the morning’s first two stages, but Toyota’s 1-2 was short-lived as the Welshman suffered a rear tire delamination on the afternoon’s opening test. That cost Evans almost 10s and he was forced to settle for the final podium spot, trailing Mikkelsen by 6.7s overnight.

Evans could take some comfort from the fact that he outscored his main title rivals, the Hyundai duo of Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak, in the Saturday points distribution. Evans collected 13 points, compared with Neuville’s six and Tanak’s zero. The latter, who’d already stopped on Friday after hitting a deer, retired his Hyundai again at Saturday’s lunchtime service halt in a bid to preserve the car for Super Sunday and the bonus points-paying, rally-closing Wolf Power Stage.

Adrien Fourmaux continued his strong run to fourth overall in the best of the M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1s, ending the leg 20.9s adrift of Evans, but 21.2s clear of fifth-placed Martiņs Sesks in a less powerful, non-hybrid Puma.

Adrien Fourmaux holds fourth overall for M-Sport Ford, best of the rest behind Toyota and Hyundai.

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta completed the Rally1 runners in a lackluster eighth, having struggled to find any level of confidence in his GR Yaris.

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Sami Pajari stretched his lead to almost half a minute as early rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz retired on Saturday.

Home hero Kajetanowicz had been pressuring Pajari for the lead on the opening leg and trailed the Finnish rising star by just 8.9s on Friday evening. However, the Pole’s victory hopes were dashed in Saturday’s third stage when he slid wide and damaged his Skoda Fabia RS’s rear suspension, dropping more than 20 minutes and later retiring.

“It’s life, it’s rallying,” said Kajetanowicz. “We went off, hit something and broke a [suspension] arm. These things happen when you are pushing.”

Kajetanowicz’s exit left Pajari more than 30s clear at the top of the class leaderboard by lunchtime, a buffer that the Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 driver would see reduced to 26.3s over Skoda driver Oliver Solberg at close of play on Saturday.

Solberg was hindered by his early starting position on Friday, which meant he encountered more loose gravel on the stages than his main WRC2 rivals. But on Saturday, with a more favorable slot in the start order, he climbed from seventh to second in class, pipping fellow Fabia driver Robert Virves by just 3.1s after the day’s final test.

Oliver Solberg made good use of a better starting slot to charge to second in WRC2 in his Skoda Fabia RS. McKlein/Motorsport Images

Sunday’s final leg comprises double runs of Gmina Mragowo and Mikołajki, the second run through the latter comprising the 6.96-mile, rally-ending Wolf Power Stage. 

WRC Rally Poland, positions after Leg Two, SS15
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2h00m44.0s
2 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +9.4s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +16.1s
4 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1) +37.0s
5 Martins Sesks/Renars Francis (Ford Puma Rally1, non-hybrid) +58.2s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +58.3s
7 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +1m24.5s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m41.9s
9 Sami Pajari/Enni Malkonen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 – WRC2 leader) +5m46.5s
10 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +6m12.8s

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Story originally appeared on Racer