The Toyota driver excelled in challenging wet conditions to set fastest times on four of Friday’s six stages to open up a 36.4s lead over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville.
Elfyn Evans climbed from eighth to second through the day but lost ground on the day’s final stage to fall behind Neuville, 47.2s adrift of the leader. Evans needs to outscore Rovanpera in this weekend’s three-country rally to deny his team-mate a second world title.
M-Sport’s Ott Tanak managed to survive the tricky conditions to occupy fourth (+1m30.4s) ahead of Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta, who completed a solid drive.
Eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier recovered to sixth, 2m35.9s behind Rovanpera, after losing almost a minute to a tyre issue on the day’s first stage. Teemu Suninen and Gregoire Munster filled seventh and eighth positions.
Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi retired from third after a huge crash in stage five, from which both driver and co-driver Janne Ferm emerged unscathed.
After clean sweeping the morning stages, Rovanpera’s run of stage wins came to a halt on stage six (Vlachovo Brezí 2, 13.66km). Despite the weather clearing, the Finn’s pass was some eight seconds slower than the morning run due to the wet and muddy road conditions.
“It’s definitely quite tricky,” said Rovanpera. “Even though the weather is drying up the stages are really dirty. I hope this one was the worst of the loop.”
Photo by: Toyota Racing
Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
Evans came through to win the stage by 1.1s from Neuville, who felt he’d squeezed the maximum from his run. Evans’ effort reduced Rovanpera’s lead to 27.5s and extended his margin over Neuville to 2.0s.
Tanak dropped a further 8.6s as he continued to struggle with the set-up of his M-Sport Puma. He was however faster than Ogier and Katsuta.
Katsuta was the last to pass through the stage as organisers were forced to cancel the test due to spectators standing in dangerous locations. Notional times were awarded to the remaining crews yet to traverse the test.
Rovanpera responded to Evans’ effort in stage seven (Zvotoky, 23.81km) by taking 9.7s out of the Welshman, who couldn’t find the sweet spot on the slippery road. The effort was enough for Rovanpera to claim his fourth stage win of the event.
“I had a really bad feeling so I was hoping he [Kalle] was a bit the same, but clearly not,” reported Evans, who trailed Rovanpera by 37.2s after finding his tyres were “moving quite a lot”.
Neuville was also 1.7s quicker than Evans and closed to within 0.3s of second overall.
Tanak felt the conditions were getting worse which contributed to his 17.6s time loss while Ogier, 24.6s away from the pace, was reduced to just running through the stages safely.
Fifth-placed Katsuta survived a scare of his own, that almost saw him find the trees, to post the sixth fastest time.
Neuville produced his most impressive drive of the day to win stage eight (Sumavske Hostice, 23.43km). The Belgian was surprised by his pace as his benchmark time proved 1.1s faster than Rovanpera.
Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport
Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1
In contrast, Evans had a few moments during his run which added up to him ceding 11.1s and second overall to Neuville.
There was also a drama for Tanak, who ended the stage without a gear lever. But he still clocked the fifth-best time, behind Ogier.
“We have no gear lever for the last 5-7km,” said Tanak. “I don’t know why it happens to me, probably too much time in the gym.”
Tanak’s M-Sport team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet endured a stage to forget. The Frenchman had already been issued a one-minute penalty and a 1,500 euro fine for not having his helmet strap fastened correctly in stage four, before he ran off the road.
The incident, which necessitated a wheel change, cost him five minutes which dropped him outside of the top 10.
Hyundai’s Emil Lindholm ended the day leading WRC2. The rally will cross into Germany and Austria on Saturday.