Neuville claimed the spoils in the inaugural three-country asphalt rally that saw the WRC compete across the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany in one event for the first time. The Belgian took his second victory of the season by 57.6s from Rovanpera.
However, the result was enough for Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen to become only the sixth pairing in WRC history to defend the world title after Toyota team-mate and rival Elfyn Evans failed to outscore the 23-year-old Finn.
The podium was completed by M-Sport’s Ott Tanak, who finished 1m52.8s behind Neuville.
Neuville led the rally at the end of Thursday’s two super special stages held in the Czech Republic but the Hyundai driver lost that advantage by stage three.
Extreme wet conditions dominated Friday’s stages producing incredibly treacherous conditions which benefited title contenders Rovanpera and Evans at the top of the road order.
Rovanpera once again showcased his ability when road surfaces become slippery, to deliver a clean sweep of stage winning times on Friday morning, This moved the Finn into 29.2s lead over rival Evans, who climbed from eighth overall.
Evans was unable to match Rovanpera’s pace across the afternoon and dropped behind Neuville to third. Rovanpera went into Saturday’s stages in Austria and Germany with a 36.4s lead over Neuville with Evans, 47.2s in arrears.
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1
While Evans felt the gap to his title rival was uncatchable on pure driving alone, he was offered a glimmer of hope when Rovanpera made a rare error on stage 10. The Finn overshot a hairpin left and was lucky that his GR Yaris found a gap between the trees, but he lost 24.7s in the process.
This put Neuville within 10.9s of Rovanpera before stage 11 which provided an ultimately decisive moment in the championship.
Sitting in third position, Evans locked an inside front wheel before running off the damp road at a relatively low speed. The Welshman’s GR Yaris hit a wooden shed which damaged the front of the car and ripped off a rear wheel. Evans was forced to retire from the day but rejoined the rally on Sunday and claimed the Power Stage.
Rovanpera was made aware of the drama that struck his title rival before starting the stage and elected to back off, which handed Neuville the rally lead.
With Rovanpera realistically only needing to finish the event to seal the title, he reluctantly opted not to push, although he did still win Stage 14 that was arguably the most slippery of the entire rally.
Likewise, with the threat of Rovanpera diminishing, Neuville was afforded the luxury to cruise through the remaining stages to clinch a comfortable win.
Tanak sealed third despite struggling with the set-up of his Ford Puma in wet conditions and a hydraulic issue on Saturday night that briefly put him into a ditch.
Photo by: Toyota Racing
Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
Eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier came home in fourth (+2m08.6s) after his rally hopes were dented by a puncture on stage three. The Frenchman also battled an illness throughout the week.
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta completed a solid drive to net fifth ahead of Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen. M-Sport’s Gregoire Munster impressed in only his second Rally1 outing to finish seventh ahead of team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet who endured an eventful rally.
Loubet was handed a one-minute penalty for failing to have his helmet correctly fastened before then losing five minutes to a crash on stage eight. A transmission issue halted his progress on Sunday which dropped him to 10th overall.
Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi was the only Rally1 retirement after a high speed crash on stage five when he was sitting in an impressive third.
M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux finished as the top Rally2-run entry in eighth, although the WRC2 class was claimed by Skoda driver Nicolas Ciamin.