One day, and four stages, are all that stand between Kalle Rovanperä and a successful World Rally Championship title defense.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But on a rally as demanding as Central European Rally has proven to be, it’s anything but.
And Rovanperä knows this – almost to his cost. A few centimeters either way and it may have been the reigning world champion, rather than Elfyn Evans, that the service park is talking about as the fallen championship challenger tonight.
In the braking for a right-hand SS10 hairpin, Rovanperä’s Toyota locked up and was headed straight for the trees. Supreme skill, and a handy slice of luck, enabled him to nose the car towards a clearing, spin it round and get going again.
The alternative wouldn’t have been pretty.
“Yeah it was…,” Rovanperä pauses, “it’s always tricky. You need to make some quick choices where to go when trying to see where you have space to go, but yeah I’m proud of the save I did.
“For sure not the mistake, but the save was good!
“I changed the direction at the last minute and it was good, otherwise we would have been in the tree and probably stayed there.”
It was a lucky escape that, at the time, looked to threaten his rally lead. But that swiftly became irrelevant once he knew Evans was out, and so Thierry Neuville was allowed to run free at the front as Rovanperä eased off.
All in all it’s been a strange day for the Finn. Bad in that he lost his rally lead, but great in that his championship hand is now even stronger than it already was.
“Yeah for sure that’s the bigger thing and more important thing,” Rovanperä admitted, “so yeah without my mistake for sure we would have been in the fight still for the lead but I think that’s not important at the moment.”
It’s a rare day you’ll hear Rovanperä conceding a rally win, but he is right – the championship is more important.
His chances of securing the 2023 title always looked good before CER, as Rovanperä needed only to match Evans points total to clinch it. And even before Evans’ crash, Rovanperä was on course to seal the deal with his team-mate two spots behind him.
But there’s little doubt that Evans’ exit changed things for Kalle.
“We heard on the start-line, just before our start time, that Elfyn went out, so there was not much time to think about [it] but the only thing I knew I had to do was finish the stage,” he said.
“We heard all the time how tricky the stage is, then I didn’t care about the lead anymore. I just took a bit of pace off to get through and then see what happens.”
It leaves Rovanperä 26.2 seconds down on Neuville, with nothing to focus on but the championship.
Professional drivers can often downplay such scenarios, but Rovanperä admitted the championship is on his mind.
“Of course we have been thinking about it all the time,” he said, candidly. “You need to keep in mind what’s coming and let’s hope we can bring it home.”
But it’ll be a nervous drive.
“You just try to go stage by stage but of course it will feel long, you have nothing to fight [for] let’s say driving wise. You try to keep yourself out of trouble and just wait for the kilometers to end.”
With Elfyn Evans restarting on Sunday, the next 41.7 miles of WRC action will determine the outcome.