Kalle Rovanperä scored another crushing stage win on the Saturday morning of the Acropolis Rally, extending his lead over Ott Tänak to 16.8 seconds.
SS8 Gravia was slightly longer than Saturday morning’s opening test, Pavilani, and just as he had been on SS7, Toyota driver Rovanperä was in a class of one.
Beating Tänak by 7.5s, Rovanperä has defused what was looking to be a close fight for victory by leaving his rivals for dust.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “It was a nice tire choice [three hards and three softs] so thanks to my engineer also, he was supporting me on that.
“I was pushing and trying to really gain everything I can so it’s quite nice.”
Gravia was a tricky test, particularly towards the end as the grip severely dropped off. As Hyundai’s Tänak put it: “The grip dropped so much that it was immediately feeling like a puncture but it was consistent so it was clearly just the surface.”
As he had been on SS7, Tänak was comfortably quicker than Sébastien Ogier behind but nowhere near close enough to Rovanperä.
Ogier was third fastest but set some intriguing split times. He had been as much as 8.3s down on team-mate Elfyn Evans early on the stage but he emerged 3.3s to the good.
The world champion had “no idea why” that was the case, but said it was a “difficult stage for me again, [I] struggled quite a lot with the grip”.
Ogier is now a whopping 30.6s adrift of the lead and 13.8s shy of Tänak’s second place.
As had been the case on the previous test, Evans was significantly faster than Thierry Neuville as the two WRC title hopefuls lodged their bid to return to the points-paying positions.
Evans outpaced Neuville by 15.4s, setting the fourth-quickest time on SS8. As a result he is 1m46.5s better off overall in 13th, just under a minute shy of Andreas Mikkelsen, the leading Rally2 runner, who occupies seventh place.
The Toyota driver is also within striking range of the WRC frontrunners battling over the final positions in the top 10.
“We’re obviously trying,” Evans said, “but to be honest the grip was so, so low coming down the hill for the last half. Really surprised by that.”
Neuville meanwhile felt there was “lots of cleaning in the stage” and he therefore “had to take it with he right approach”.
He lost his time on Friday due to broken power-steering while Evans had a gearbox problem.
Dani Sordo continued to do a solid job, losing just 0.7s to Evans on SS8, but was another to struggle with grip on a stage that surprised several crews.
Sordo’s Hyundai is fourth, 27.6s back from Ogier but a healthy 56.3s up on a battling Adrien Fourmaux, who has team-mate Gus Greensmith closing in on him.
The gap between the two M-Sport Fords is now down to 14.4s as Fourmaux flirted with disaster in his Fiesta.
Fourmaux still holds fifth position over team-mate Greensmith but his advantage has been halved in just two stages on Saturday.
Arriving at the stage-end with a dislodged front bumper, Fourmaux explained: “I went straight in a barrier in a slow corner, was quite tight, I just lost the grip.”
Both Fourmaux – who was outpaced by the fastest Rally2 car of Oliver Solberg on SS8 – and Greensmith elected to run soft tires all round whereas their Hyundai and Toyota rivals have taken a mixed package of rubber.
Greensmith felt his covers were “gone” towards the end of SS8, admitting the “last half of the stage was just purely managing”.
But he was still content with his call, as “if I’d have taken the hards it would’ve been wrong for the first half of the stage”.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 20m35.9s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +7.5s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +13.9s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +17.2s
5 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +17.9s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +24.9s
Leading positions after SS8
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) 1h42m00.7s
2 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +16.8s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +30.6s
4 Sordo/Carrera (Hyundai) +58.2s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +1m54.5s
6 Greensmith/Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +2m08.9s
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Elliott Edmondson (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +4m02.8s
8 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo der Ohannesian (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +4m13.8s
9 Chris Ingram/Ross Whittock (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +4m45.8s
10 Yohan Rossel/Alexandre Coria (Citroën) +4m53.3s