Finnish driver claims surprise lead as Ogier and Neuville sidelined by gruelling conditions.
Kalle Rovanperä is on course for a remarkable victory at EKO Acropolis Rally Greece after Saturday’s brutal penultimate leg forced fellow challengers Thierry Neuville and Sébastien Ogier into retirement.
A furious fight in the morning became a matter of survival this afternoon as heat and punishing rock-strewn roads took a heavy toll in this 10th fixture of the FIA World Rally Championship season.
Neuville was 10.9sec clear when he thumped a hole and shattered his Hyundai i20 N’s front-right suspension on the first stage of the afternoon loop. He had trailed championship leader Rovanperä by 36 points coming into this fixture, round 10 of 13.
His demise left Ogier in control but the Frenchman, who entered the final Eleftherohori stage 12.4sec ahead of team-mate Rovanperä, swiped a rock which destroyed the rear-left suspension on his Toyota GR Yaris. He retired on the final road section while Rovanperä romped to the top.
The 22-year-old will start the final leg with a lead of more than two minutes over Hyundai Motorsport Dani’s Sordo. Victory on Sunday would move him another step closer to clinching back-to-back world titles.
“There was a lot happening at the front today,” said a slightly shocked Rovanperä. “It was a nice battle of course, but not the easiest to push with Seb because we had the championship to think about. I think we had a good day, we were fast but we also kept the car in one piece,” he added.
There was drama throughout the field as Rovanperä’s closest championship challenger Elfyn Evans limped to the finish of SS9 in EV mode when his Toyota began overheating. Having plummeted to fifth, the Welshman hauled himself back up the order only to be demoted to third by Sordo in the final test.
Sordo had ended Friday’s opening leg down in seventh but crept up the order as those around him struck trouble, and 4.1sec split the podium-sitting pair at close of play.
Despite having 3min 40sec in time penalties for being late out of Friday’s tyre fitting zone, M-Sport Ford Puma driver Tänak enjoyed a clean run in comparison to his rivals and climbed from ninth to fourth, passing fifth and sixth-placed Esapekka Lappi and Takamoto Katsuta in the process.
A transmission failure left Lappi’s Hyundai with only rear-wheel drive while a fraught run through Karoutes 2 saw Katsuta stop twice to perform wheel changes on his GR Yaris.
WRC2 runners comprised the remainder of the leaderboard, and it was Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen who led the support category after a stunning comeback drive in a Škoda Fabia RS Rally2. Gus Greensmith was eighth overall while Yohan Rossel and Grégoire Munster completed the top 10.
Sunday’s finale totals 42.37km north-west of Lamia and begins with the classic Tarzan test. Double runs of Grammeni round out the event, the latter of which forms the Wolf Power Stage where bonus points are available.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris 2h 29m 40.5s
2. D Sordo / C Carrera ESP Hyundai i20 N +2m 4.4s
3. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +2m 9.4s
4. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Ford Puma +4m 49.7s
5. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Hyundai i20 N +6m 16.6s
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +7m 2.2s