Lead Toyota pairing Kalle Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans are all set for a final day showdown on Rally Portugal, finishing Saturday’s itinerary separated by only 5.7s.
Long-time rally leader Evans had successfully held Rovanperä at bay on the Saturday morning loop, heading into the afternoon with 18.4s in hand.
But over the next four stages Rovanperä gradually eroded that lead, landing the biggest blow on the second pass of Amarante as rain began lashing down.
After winning Vieira do Minho and Cabeceiras de Basto, Rovanperä then took 13.9s out of his team-mate on the longest stage of the rally to snatch the lead away, then finished the day off by taking another 1.7s on the Porto superspecial.
Toyota simply could not be beaten on Saturday – aside from the returning Sébastien Ogier crashing into a bank and going down a ditch, then later retiring from the rally.
The reigning world champion’s woe hasn’t stopped three GR Yarises occupying all the podium places, as Takamoto Katsuta caught and then gradually pulled away from Dani Sordo in third.
There was little Sordo felt he could do to stop Katusta’s charge, complaining that he had constant wheelspin for much of the day and unable to cajole the Hyundai i20 Rally1 into doing his bidding.
That was until the day-ending superspecial, where he smashed his key rivals for the podium on the timesheets. In two miles, he gained 8.9 seconds on Katsuta, as an initially wet cobbled road began to try out rapidly.
And when he heard by how much he’d beaten team-mate Thierry Neuville – 14.9s in all – he was astounded.
“Are you sure I didn’t do one lap less?” Sordo queried, trying to understand how he’d gained so much time in such a short distance.
Even before Sordo had clocked his rapid time around the streets of Porto, Katsuta didn’t believe third position was safely his to keep just yet.
“Of course we are under pressure,” he said. “Dani is a very experienced driver and very fast, so we had to push quite a lot. At the same time we were able to manage the car a bit and the tires as well.”
Both Katsuta and Sordo will need to keep one eye on a rapidly recovering Neuville, who put in a stunning drive on Amarante to go 16.9s faster than the entire field.
An early morning puncture for Gus Greensmith had given Neuville sixth and with his quick stage times, Neuville made quick work of fellow M-Sport runner Pierre-Louis Loubet for fifth.
Across the whole day Neuville cut the gap to the final podium spot in half, though he’ll need a slice of luck if he wants to catch the pair ahead of him, with half a minute still to find to catch Sordo and an extra five seconds to reach Katsuta.
M-Sport faced a tough day across all five of its cars, with several of its drivers taking turns as the lead Puma driver over the course of the day.
By Saturday’s conclusion, Craig Breen had picked up the baton, well adrift of Neuville ahead but without major issues.
Breen’s biggest obstacle had been getting stuck in Adrien Fourmaux’s dust when his team-mate had to stop and change a puncture on the morning pass of Amarante, kicking up dust that compromised his visibility.
Loubet suffered two spins in the morning and went from holding down a solid top five and being the lead Puma to being seventh, though he still has 26.2s in hand over eighth-placed Ott Tänak.
Sébastien Loeb’s return after his Friday crash was a short-lived one, as engine trouble forced him to park up early on Saturday morning. M-Sport has elected not to send him back out on Sunday.