Rovanpera only needs to outscore his Toyota rival to successfully defend his crown, which seems highly likely after Evans ran off the road on stage 11 while sitting in third position.
The drama handed Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville an 11.1s rally lead over Rovanpera, who made a rare mistake in stage 10 that slashed his overnight advantage, before electing to back off after Evans’ accident.
As a result, M-Sport’s Ott Tanak moved into third, 1m19.6s adrift ahead of Toyota’s Sebastian Ogier. The Frenchman leapfrogged Takamoto Katsuta, who slid to sixth behind Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen.
M- Sport’s Gregoire Munster ended the loop in seventh spot in front of WRC2 leader Emil Lindholm.
The rally crossed the border into Austria for the morning’s first stage (Schardinger Innviertel, 15.72km) but conditions remained challenging thanks to light rain.
With the road order reversed, rally leader Rovanpera faced the worst of the road conditions, although the Finn was able to stem the time loss by posting the third-fastest time.
Title rival Evans took the stage win with an effort 2.1s faster than Rovanpera. Evans’ run was also 1.3s quicker than Neuville as the gap to the Belgian, who held second overall, came down to 9.5s.
Neuville wasn’t overly happy with the handling of his i20N and was unable to find the confidence to commit to through some of the long radius corners.
The battle for fifth overall took another twist as Ogier jumped ahead of Toyota team-mate Katsuta. Ogier has been fighting an illness this week but revealed at stage end that he was feeling “a little bit better” after setting the fourth-fastest time, putting him 0.3s ahead of Katsuta in the overall standings.
The roads becoming increasingly dirtier after each pass was brought to everyone’s attention on Stage 10 (Muhltal 1 27.15km) as rally leader Rovanpera made a rare mistake.
The Finn was caught out at a damp hairpin left and went straight on and luckily slid up an embankment avoiding the trees. He lost 24.7s by the time he had recovered and reached the stage end.
“I just had a spin in one slippy braking, which was much more slippier than I expected,” said Rovanpera. “It is definitely tricky to know where the guys are pulling the dirt onto the road. Everything should be okay, let’s try to stay on the tarmac now.”
Rovanpera’s error coupled with a blistering stage-winning time from Neuville helped the Belgian close to within 10.9s of the rally lead. Evans was 3.8s slower than Neuville, but Rovanpera’s misfortune breathed more life into his title hopes with deficit to his rival down to 24.2s.
Ogier managed to pull clear of Katsuta in the fight for fifth as the latter, lacking in confidence on the slippery road, dropped 25.6s to put him into the clutches of Suninen in seventh overall.
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1
Tanak navigated the stage without hybrid after an eventful journey to the test that included a puncture on the road section.
The final stage (Knaus Tabbert Bayerischer Wald, 11.88km) of the loop took the crews into Germany and was held under clear skies.
It appeared to be a decisive stage in the championship as Rovanpera’s title rival Evans slid off the road at a relatively slow speed and spun, collecting a barn door in the process. Evans and co-driver Scott Martin were okay. It is unclear if they will rejoin the rally tomorrow.
Rovanpera was notified of the incident prior to his run and subsequently backed off. He dropped 22.0s, handing Neuville the rally lead.
There was further heartbreak for Toyota as Katsuta’s confidence struggle continued. The Japanese dropped even more time and slipped to seventh overall behind Suninen.
A repeat of the morning stages will conclude Saturday’s action.