Kalle Rovanperä will start Sunday’s deciding leg of Croatia Rally in the lead – but only after his once commanding advantage came under threat from Ott Tänak during Saturday’s absorbing action.
FIA World Rally Championship leader Rovanperä began the second day of three in the hills near Zagreb with a seemingly impregnable margin of almost 90 seconds over the Estonian in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.
He ended with that advantage slashed to just 19.9s after a puncture and Tänak’s persistence set up an exciting Sunday finale for the WRC’s hybrid-powered era.
Tänak had already trimmed Rovanperä’s lead when the Finn punctured his front left tyre on the morning’s penultimate stage amid heavy rain and thick fog at the Platak ski resort above the Adriatic coast.
The pair were the only frontrunners who had the advantage of Pirelli’s wet weather tyres on all four corners of their cars. While Tänak pushed on through the gloom to win the stage in his Hyundai i20 N, Rovanperä conceded nearly 55s.
Tänak sniffed the opportunity of a first victory for more than a year and nibbled back more time, despite an afternoon gearchange problem. But Rovanperä sent a clear message in the final test, setting fastest time to regain 5.1s.
“This is my reply,” said a defiant Rovanperä. “It was a good stage, full speed, but we still have a difficult day to come tomorrow.”
Tänak admitted the Platak test was a challenge. “In these conditions you don’t care about the time, you’re just happy to make it through. It was like a different place in the world. This afternoon I didn’t have a good feeling to really push to the limits,” he said.
While conditions on the other stages were drier than yesterday, the weather deteriorated in Platak and the afternoon’s repeat pass was cancelled following an inspection by the FIA’s WRC Safety Delegate Michèle Mouton.
Craig Breen and Thierry Neuville are blanketed by 4.9s for the final podium place heading into Sunday, almost a minute behind Tänak. Breen overshot a hairpin in his Ford Puma while Neuville’s torrid weekend took yet more twists.
He received a one-minute penalty overnight for speeding on Friday, which relegated him from second to fourth. His i20 N had to be pushed into service this morning and another 10s penalty came for leaving a minute late.
Neuville clawed back almost 40s from Breen to end hot on the Irishman’s heels and 49.9s clear of Elfyn Evans. The Welshman won the opening test in a GR Yaris but was reluctant to take risks when on course for his first points finish of the year having been delayed by two punctures on day one.
Takamoto Katsuta rounds off the top six despite dropping time with a puncture and an overshoot. The Japanese is almost 3m40s adrift of Evans.
PH Sport’s flying Frenchman Yohan Rossel heads WRC2 in seventh aboard his Citroën C3 Rally 2 with fellow category rivals Nikolay Gryazin, Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Emil Lindholm completing the top 10. All three drive Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evos with Gryazin and Lindholm lining up for Toksport WRT and Kajetanowicz flying the flag for LOTOS Rally Team.
Former FIA European champion Armin Kremer heads the WRC2 Masters category, Gryazin leads WRC2 Junior while Sami Pajari holds the overnight advantage in WRC3 Open and Junior WRC.
Oliver Solberg crashed his i20 N out of fifth in the opening stage, which was cancelled as rescue vehicles attended a fire at the rear of the car.
Esapekka Lappi returned after hitting a rock and retiring his GR Yaris yesterday. The Finn benefited from opening the roads and scored three fastest times.
Sunday’s finale journeys north of Zagreb and features two technical stages that are driven twice for a total of 54.48 kilometres. The closing test forms the live-for-TV Wolf Power Stage with bonus points on offer to the fastest crews.