Rovanperä chases Tänak as battle for Secto Rally Finland rages

Ott Tänak and Kalle Rovanperä set up a thrilling grandstand finish to Secto Rally Finland by duelling into a low sun at the end of leg two to finish the second day separated by just 8.4s.

Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s Rovanperä started the leg in fourth place, but worked his way past team-mates Elfyn Evans and Esapekka Lappi to chase overnight leader Tänak throughout a fabulous afternoon of high-speed rally action. Rovanperä took five stage wins to Tänak’s two – and on the Estonian’s second they set identical times – as the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team driver put in a gritty performance to hold off the charging Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.

“It’s still a bit of a surprise where we are at the moment,” said Tänak, who had played down his hopes after the shakedown on Thursday. “But definitely it’s been a good day. With the conditions that were coming we thought we would lose a lot more, but actually we are doing good.”

“I was expecting opening the road yesterday would be difficult and it was,” said Rovanperä. “We lost a lot of time, but today we have been trying our best to catch it. The main thing is we have made it to the end of the day. We have good points coming so now we have to finish the job.” 

Tricky and inconsistent rain-affected conditions welcomed the crews into the fabulous 20.19-kilometre Päijälä test that kicked off the morning’s four-stage loop, as Evans took the initiative to claim his first stage win of the rally. Tänak extended his overnight advantage over Lappi to 6.6s despite describing his Hyundai as “a nightmare to drive”, with Evans closing to within 15s of the lead.

But Rovanperä began his charge on the 20.56-kilometre Rapsula test, scoring his first stage win of the rally and edging ahead of Evans into third, as Tänak again built his lead over Lappi. Meanwhile, Craig Breen’s rally came to an end when his M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Puma Rally1 clouted a bank over a crest, the Irishman sustaining heavy damage to his right-front corner. That pushed Thierry Neuville up to fifth, the Belgian gaining two places after demoting Takamoto Katsuta, who had a half-spin at a junction in his Toyota. 

Rovanperä kept the pressure on with another stage win over the 13.75-kilometre Patajoki test to close on the top two, as Lappi shaved Tänak’s lead. But Tänak hit back by storming to his first stage win of the day on the new 20.65-kilometre Vekkula test that concluded the morning loop, to leave him heading back to service with a lead of 9.5s. Rovanperä closed to within 3.4s of Lappi with Evans five seconds further back in fourth. 

“It was a good stage,” said Tänak at the end of Vekkula. “No moments really. It’s all we could do.”

Rovanperä admitted he was “lucky to be here” at the end of the stage after a moment where he almost crashed his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1. “A note was wrong and I was off the road.”

Following a break for service, the crews returned for a second run over the same loop of four stages – but this time in dry and sunny conditions similar to those experienced in leg one on Friday. Back on Päijälä, drivers commented on roads that had become “rough” and rutted from the early runs in wet conditions. A third stage win of the day moved Rovanperä to within 1.5s of Lappi, who sported a cracked windscreen from a rock flicked up by the front of his Toyota. But Tänak was just 0.2s slower than the local hero, extending his lead over Lappi to 11.2s.

At the end of Rapsula, Tänak’s lead remained stable – but now his closest rival was Rovanperä, the 21-year-old having finally overhauled team-mate Lappi, whose mood was darkening as he lost time with the distraction of his cracked windscreen. “I’m not comfortable with the car,” said a determined Tänak in the face of Rovanperä’s attack. “But I keep pushing. I fight.”

The battle was indeed on with two stages of the leg to go, and on the second run over Patajoki nothing could separate Tänak and Rovanperä as they set identical times and stretched away from Lappi and Evans, the Welshman forced into roadside repairs on his left-rear corner following a heavy impact towards the end of the stage. That left just the final run over Vekkula to go to complete the second leg.

Rovanperä took his fifth win of the leg as Tänak lost time with a small mistake at the end of the stage. Lappi completed the leg 35.2s off the lead, with Evans falling to nearly a minute and twenty seconds down thanks to his damaged left-rear corner.

The 2021 Rally Finland winner is still 45.8s clear of Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai, the Belgian enjoying a good afternoon’s work to consolidate his fifth position ahead of Katsuta, who survived a high-speed spin on the final stage of the day, while Gus Greensmith overhauled Pierre-Louis Loubet in Patajoki to be best of the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Puma Rally1s in seventh.

In WRC2, Teemu Suninen and co-driver Mikko Markkula continued to edge the battle of the young flying Finns, completing the leg in their Hyundai i20 N just 10.7s ahead of Emil Lindholm and Reeta Hämäläinen in their Toksport Skoda Fabia Evo. “It was quite a good day, in the morning we had some challenges,” said Suninen, in reference to a power loss on the opening stage, “but we managed them well and in the afternoon it was quite good.”

But their countrymen Mikko Heikkilä and Sami Pajari were out of luck. Heikkilä crashed and lost a wheel in the morning and Pajari stopped on the penultimate stage with mechanical trouble. That elevated Estonian Egon Kaur on to the class podium in his Volkswagen Polo GTI, with Hayden Paddon – on his second start since making his WRC return in Estonia – chasing hard in fourth.

Kuva: Taneli Niinimäki

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