Neuville leads as Rovanpera moves closer to world title glory

Kalle Rovanperä has moved a step closed to the WRC title. Image: Red Bull Content Pool

Kalle Rovanperä has moved a step closer to the WRC title. Image: Red Bull Content Pool

Thierry Neuville might be leading the Central European Rally with Sunday’s four stages left to run but it’s Kalle Rovanpera who holds a clear advantage in the race to win the world title.

The Finn’s grip on the championship chase follows a dramatic morning as this all-new event switched between stages in Austria and Germany.

It resulted in Elfyn Evans, the only driver capable of preventing Rovanpera from taking back-to-back crowns, crashing at high speed into a barn and realistically out of the fight.

Indeed, Evans – who is set to restart on Sunday – would need Rovanpera to fail to finish the final leg. Even then, Evans must take a minimum of two points from the Power Stage to keep alive his very outside hopes of becoming world champion.

However, winning Rally Japan with the fastest time on the Power Stage with Rovanpera effectively non-scoring would also be prerequisites for Evans.

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There was a fleeting moment when the title tables might have turned in the Welshman’s favour.

Leading comfortably following his dominant display in the Czech Republic on Friday, Rovanpera got out of shape braking for a downhill right-hander and slid off the road on SS10.

Although he avoided any kind of contact, his lead over Neuville was more than halved.

But once the event had crossed back into Germany after the two Saturday morning stages in Austria, the championship initiative was very much Rovanpera’s as Evans hit trouble.

Needing to outscore Rovanpera by at least one point on this penultimate round to keep the fight going, Evans got out of shape on a fast but slippery right-hander, ran out of road and into a barn door.

The contact left his Toyota Yaris as bruised and battered as his title chances.

“I was just caught out by a particularly slippery right-hander,” Evans said.

“The car seemed to slow down initially quite well on the brakes, but when I turned in, the grip was much lower than I had expected and I just locked the inside front wheel.

“Once that pushed us wide, the road was so narrow that there was nowhere to go really. We picked up a bit too much damage to be able to continue, but the team has managed to repair the car so we can be back out there tomorrow.

“I’m just disappointed for the team and for ourselves.”

Having been informed at the stage start that Evans was out, Rovanpera eased his pace considerably to let Neuville into a lead he was able to hold firm for the remainder of Saturday’s leg with the Belgian on top by 26.2s.

“It’s good to be at the finish of the day,” said Rovanpera, who can become champion for a second time if he keeps out of trouble on Sunday.

“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 Tanak is third overnight for M-Sport Ford but almost 1m50s off the lead with Sebastien Ogier holding fourth having started the day in sixth behind fellow Toyota driver Takamoto Katsuta.

Teemu Suninen heads into Sunday 10.9s behind Katsuta in sixth with Gregoire Munster in seventh and Pierre-Louis Loubet eighth.

Adrien Fourmaux is the leading Rally2 driver in ninth, while Emil Lindholm is on course to win WRC2 in 10th overall.

Sunday’s deciding leg consists of two stages run twice, Bohmerwald in Austria and Passauer Land in Germany.

They offer a combined competitive distance of 67.24 kilometres.

The first Bohmerwald test is up first at 08:15 CET. The rally-deciding Passauer Land Power Stage is due to begin at 12:15.

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