Thierry Neuville took a dominant win in FIA WRC Central European Rally ahead of newly crowned 2023 champion Kalle Rovanpera.
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.
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 opportunity for service 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.
Just four stages stand between Kalle Rovanperä and back-to-back FIA World Rally Championship crowns after his only remaining title rival Elfyn Evans crashed out of Central European Rally on Saturday. Having dominated Thursday’s treacherous tests in the Czech Republic to build a commanding rally lead, 23-year-old Rovanperä was already doing more than enough to successfully defend his 2022 WRC drivers’ crown.
A spin on Saturday’s second stage allowed Thierry Neuville to slash the Finn’s advantage by more than half, but the dynamic completely changed later in the morning when Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris team-mate Evans, who had been sitting third overall, crashed out of contention. Evans needed to outscore his colleague by at least one point at this penultimate round to keep the fight going, but he came unstuck on a slippery right-hand bend and slid into a barn.
The Welshman will restart on Sunday in a desperate bid to salvage bonus points from the Wolf Power Stage. Sacrificing his chances of the outright rally win to focus on his championship prospects, Rovanperä dialled back his speed. Neuville, as a result, was left to build a 26.2-second overnight lead in his Hyundai i20 N.
Ott Tänak ensured that all three top-line manufacturers ended the day on the podium, bringing his Ford Puma to the end in a lonely third overall. A non-functioning handbrake caused the M-Sport man some frustrations in SS14, and he trailed Rovanperä by over one minute with Sébastien Ogier 31.1sec behind.
The battle for fifth place was raging between Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen. Katsuta struggled to feel confident on the greasy asphalt roads in the morning but upped his pace in the afternoon to claim the position by 10.9sec. Puma hotshot Grégoire Munster was seventh overall ahead of Pierre-Louis Loubet. Adrien Fourmaux and Emil Lindholm, leader of the WRC2 category in a Hyundai i20 N Rally2, completed the leaderboard.
Kalle Rovanperä has become a two-time WRC champion, clinching the title on Sunday by finishing second overall at Central European Rally. By finishing runner-up to Thierry Neuville at this penultimate round, the 23-year-old ensured he can no longer be caught in the 2023 season. Just one year ago, Rovanperä made history when he became the youngest WRC champion ever.
Today he stands alongside legendary names like Carlos Sainz, Walter Röhrl and Miki Biasion as a double winner. Entering Central European Rally with a 31-point lead over Toyota Gazoo Racing team-mate Elfyn Evans, Rovanperä simply needed to maintain his advantage to claim the crown. When Evans suffered a dramatic crash on Saturday morning, the path to victory was all but assured.
Following a steady start to the season, Rovanperä and co-driver Jonne Halttunen hit their straps in May by winning Vodafone Rally de Portugal. From that moment on, the pair have only finished outside of the podium twice.
Here’s WRC Central European Rally: https://www.wrc.com/live-timing?liveTimingMenu=overall_livetiming&stage=FINAL&eligibility=Eligibility
[Note: The story is as per press release]