Kalle Rovanpera delivered a gravel-driving masterclass to pull clear on Rally Estonia and close to within four stages of winning Round 8 of the season, a result that would put him even further ahead in the title chase.
Rovanpera, the defending world champion, started out on Saturday morning holding a narrow 3.0s lead over Thierry Neuville. But a staggering unbroken run of nine stage wins has left the Finn 34.9s in front heading into Sunday's final leg.
“I'm feeling good, it was a proper day of rallying,” said the factory Toyota driver at the end of Saturday's action.
“I had some pressure so I needed to push and you have to drive fast on this rally. When everything goes well with a good feeling and everything works there is no point to back down.”
Neuville admitted he had been too hesitant trough the morning's opening pair of stages but still posted second-best times on five occasions aboard his works Hyundai. Although he conceded Rovanpera was too fast to catch, his efforts weren't helped by a slow rear puncture on SS12.
“I was trying to keep in touch but he was always pulling away by a second or two,” said Neuville. “I was enjoying the ride with some smiles on my face and without the puncture I think it would have been a perfect day.”
While Rovanpera has been pulling clear of Neuville out front, Esapekka Lappi and Elfyn Evans spent the day battling over the final podium place.
The Finn was 1.9s ahead of his Welsh rival following Friday's running but a slow start to Saturday let Evans close to within 0.7s after SS10. However, a stronger afternoon from Lappi enabled the Hyundai pilot to widen the gap over Evans to 7.3s, while Lappi is still in touching distance of Neuville, 10.5s behind with Sunday's 61.08 timed kilometres remaining.
“It has been up and down against Elfyn but it has been a nice battle,” said Lappi. “I took more risks in the afternoon and drove on the limit more.”
Teemu Suninen, back at the WRC's top level for the first time since November 2021, holds a solid fifth overnight in the third factory Hyundai with M-Sport Ford driver Pierre-Louis Loubet overcoming a hybrid issue on SS14 to complete Saturday's itinerary in sixth, one place ahead of Takamoto Katsuta.
Katsuta endured a troubled afternoon, which began when his factory Yaris refused to fire up as he attempted to leave the SS14 stopline. Despite an intercom fault and “so many things” on SS15 – which the Japanese would not specify when quizzed – Katsuta is a mere 7.0s down on Loubet.
Ott Tanak's fight back from his five-minute time penalty for an engine change following Thursday morning's shakedown has left him in eighth spot although having to open the road prevented more stage-winning heroics from the Estonian.
Andreas Mikkelsen and Sami Pajari are first and second in WRC2 in ninth and 10th respectively.
The untried Karaski stage is first up on Sunday from 08:09 local time, while the event deciding Kambja Wolf Power Stage is due to get under way at 13:15 local time/20:15 AEST.