Rovanpera leads Neuville, double puncture costs Evans

Toyota’s Rovanpera was among the fortunate to enjoy a clean run through a gruelling and incident-filled Saturday morning loop of stages, to open up a 1m27.9s lead over Hyundai’s Neuville, who leapt from fourth to second.

Neuville took advantage of a chaotic loop for Evans and Katsuta, who were delayed by double punctures. Katsuta ended the morning in third, where he started the day, albeit 2m22.9s adrift of the lead. Evans plummeted from second to fifth [+3m43.8s] after his tyre dramas.

M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux climbed to fourth [+2m50.6s] with an ill WRC2 class leader Gus Greensmith in sixth [+11m47.3s] after M-Sport’s Gregoire Munster retired with broken suspension.

Saturday kicked off with a drama-laden run through the Soysambu [29.32km] test. Overnight rain threatened to provide damp conditions, although the first stage of the day was largely dry.

The action began before crews reached the test as Ott Tanak, returning after his crash in stage six on Friday, encountered problems with his Hyundai i20 N on the road section. The Estonian failed to properly fasten a bonnet pin during his roadside repairs, which forced a stoppage mid-stage to address a flapping bonnet, costing him more than a minute.

«We had a very busy road section with loads of work and the bonnet pin was our mistake, just realised it didn’t click correctly,” said Tanak.

Tanak wasn’t the only driver to hit trouble though, as second-placed Evans suffered a left-rear puncture that cost him a place in the podium positions. The wheel change, completed 12.7km into the stage, cost the Welshman 1m50s, dropping him from second to fifth overall.     

Munster joined the list of those to suffer issues when the M-Sport driver suffered a broken rear suspension on his Ford Puma that reduced him to a crawl. Munster and co-driver Louis Louka attempted a repair after reaching the stage end, but they were forced to retire from the day.

Rovanpera’s streak of six consecutive stage wins came to an end on the stage as the rally leader opted for a careful approach to preserve his lead. The Finn, who was hampered by dust from the delayed Evans, dropped 5.2s.

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

The stage was won by Katsuta despite the Japanese struggling with dust coming into his eyes. Katsuta was 0.2s faster than Lappi, who rejoined the rally after his gearbox failure on Friday.

«I have a bigger problem with my eyes, I really hate this fesh-fesh sand. I can’t open my eyes. Blind rally! It’s not easy,” said Katsuta.

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Lappi’s run through the test was however compromised by a front-left tyre coming off the rim towards the end of the pass.

After inheriting third following Evans’ puncture, Neuville set his sights on reeling in second-placed Katsuta in stage nine [Elmenteita, 15.08km].

The Belgian picked up his second stage win of the event to close to within 4.8s of Katsuta. However, Neuville wasn’t happy to find the road had been changed in places since the recce.

«It was a good run, but we were told that the road wouldn’t be modified after recce. We had a big moment. They put big stones in the middle of the road.»

Neuville took the stage win by 5.2s from Lappi, who also took aim at the rally organisers.

«The organisers are not doing a good job. They promised us that nothing will change, but they changed the cuts after the recce which is really shit,” said Lappi.

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Rovanpera maintained his cautious approach clocking the third-fastest time ahead of Katsuta and Fourmaux. Tanak was sixth fastest despite completing the stage without a working intercom. He was 1.2s quicker than Evans, who opted to “play it safe”.

Drivers had been fearing the final stage of the loop [Sleeping Warrior, 36.06km] and their fears were realised. The test featured sections of slippery mud, standing water and tyre-shredding rocks.

The rocky sections took their toll on the field as Katsuta, Evans and Lappi all suffered punctures. Lappi was first to pick up a right-rear failure towards the end of an eventful run that saw him clip a zebra that dashed out into the road at the start.

Katsuta hit a big rock that cost him 1m24.6s after suffering a front-right and rear puncture, but somehow he managed to maintain third position overall. 

His team-mate Evans was hit by his second puncture of the loop, right-rear, that resulted in him losing 51.9s. 

While his team-mates hit trouble, Rovanpera managed to escape all of the chaos to win the stage by 24.8s from Neuville, who was without hybrid power at the start of the stage. Neuville, who jumped to second overall, also revealed that he bent something on his car at the stage end.

«It’s situations like that where you can do time by just driving clean. Incredibly tricky stage. I felt I took care of the tyres and [was] not pushing hard when I could,” said Rovanpera.

A second pass of the stages await the crews this afternoon.

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