Kalle Rovanperä appeared to be oblivious to Friday’s punishing conditions at Central European Rally as he stormed to a commanding 36.4-second lead over Thierry Neuville.
Heavy rain and perilous mud greeted the FIA World Rally Championship crews as they tackled the rally’s first full day, which featured six asphalt stages in the Czech Republic.
Opening the road, points leader Rovanperä took full advantage of the less polluted surface offered by his starting position. He reached the mid-leg tyre fitting zone 29.2sec clear of the field after winning all three of the morning’s super-slippery speed tests.
And the Toyota GR Yaris prodigy’s morning performance was no fluke, either. His domination continued into the repeated afternoon loop when, in conditions more consistent for drivers throughout the field, he widened the gap further.
As it stands, Rovanperä is poised to claim his second-consecutive WRC title at this penultimate round of the season unless team-mate Elfyn Evans – who languishes 47.2sec behind him in third overall – can stage a remarkable comeback.
“It has been super tricky today,” Rovanperä said. “Luckily, the weather was on our side for once with the starting position – it was good to be the first car on the road. We can be happy with our day.”
Neuville initially led after Thursday’s pair of super special stages but fell to third on Friday morning after struggling with his car’s set-up. The Belgian felt his i20 N Rally1 would have benefitted from softer suspension springs but, with no service halt between loops, changes were not possible.
Nevertheless, he maintained the pressure on Evans and, after overtaking the Welshman to claim the runner-up spot in the final stage, ended 10.8sec in front.
Also feeling at odds with his car’s handling was M-Sport Ford Puma man Ott Tänak who ended a lonely fourth overall – 43.2sec adrift of Evans but with 56.4sec in hand over fifth-placed Toyota driver Takamoto Katsuta.
Sébastien Ogier’s hopes of winning his ‘home’ rally disintegrated early in the day when the Munich-based Frenchman limped through the opening stage with tyre damage caused by a broken wheel. He fought back to claim sixth, just 3.2sec ahead of Teemu Suninen.
Aside from Neuville, Suninen was the only other Hyundai driver remaining after his compatriot Esapekka Lappi crashed heavily from third overall on SS5. The Finn, starting his first asphalt rally in the car, placed seventh overall ahead of Puma youngster Grégoire Munster.
Also having his patience tested was Pierre-Louis Loubet, who dropped more than five minutes on SS8 when he went off the road and picked up wheel damage.
Saturday begins with two stages in Austria before a quick hop across the border to the Knaus Tabbert Bayerischer Wald blast in Germany. After service in Passau, the loop is repeated once more.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris 1h 13m 5.1s
2. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +36.4s
3. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +47.2s
4. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Ford Puma +1m 30.4s
5. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +2m 26.8s
6. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +2m 35.9s