Kalle Rovanpera put himself in the driving seat to win the Central European Rally – and a second consecutive world title – with a charging run through Friday's six stages in Czech Republic.
The Toyota-driving Finn was fastest four times to complete the first full leg of the all-new tarmac event 36.4s ahead of Thierry Neuville. And with his team-mate and title rival Elfyn Evans down in third and 47.2s adrift, Rovanpera has increased his grip on the WRC crown.
While grip was in short supply on the rain- and mud-hit Czech roads, Rovanpera enjoyed the best of the conditions by running first on the road. Although his trio of consecutive fastest times this morning was evidence of that, he was also sublime when the conditions were more stable – and more equal – this afternoon.
“It has been super tricky day,” said the 23-year-old. “Luckily the weather was once in our side let's say, on the starting position it was good to be first car. His one I struggled to get the feeling, I don't know why, it started to rain and I tried to be fast but it didn't feel so good.”
Neuville reported his Hyundai's set-up was “too aggressive” for roads that were more dirty than the Belgian expected, although he completed Friday's action on a high with the stage win to demote Evans to third.
“I was constantly on the limit on the grip of the car,” Neuville said. “We just went this morning with the too stiff set-up. We just went too aggressive on the set-up and we had to stick with that all day long [due to their being no midday service] and that's why we lost a lot of time today.”
Ott Tanak dropped time on Friday's final stage when his Ford Puma's gear lever faltered. The Rally Chile winner is fourth overnight ahead of Takamoto Katsuta and Sebastien Ogier.
The eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier was delayed by a flat tyre on SS3 but came back strongly during the afternoon to take sixth place on the SS8, demoting Teemu Suninen and Gregoire Munster in the process.
Suninen said: “It was not the best [performance] but I'm learning step-by-step. It's been a really super-tricky day. Lots of mud and hard to read the grip level but hopefully we can do good progress tomorrow.”
Esapekka Lappi was in third place when he crashed heavily for the second event running, the Hyundai's challenging ending at high-speed 1.2-kilometres from the start of SS5.
The rally crosses into Austria on Saturday morning for two stages prior to a first stage in Germany prior to the midday halt in Passau. The morning stages are repeated in the afternoon with the Schardinger Innviertel test first up from 08h15 CET.