Kalle Rovanperä secured the second World Rally Championship victory of his career with a dominant and controlled drive to win the Acropolis Rally as it returned to the WRC for the first time since 2013.
Ott Tänak finished second for Hyundai ahead of world champion in-waiting Sébastien Ogier, who took another major stride towards an eighth championship title.
With chief rivals Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville both encountering problems on the first day, Ogier’s championship lead is now 44 points with only 90 points left to grab across the season.
That advantage is still held over Evans but the gap has increased from 38 points to its current tally, with Neuville six points further back and Rovanperä closing in, just one point adrift of Neuville.
Rovanperä duly scooped a dominant powerstage win by 3.9 seconds over Evans to claim a maximum haul of 30 points. Ogier, Neuville and Tänak rounded out the powerstage top-five.
“I was not maybe the most comfortable coming here but it just shows now everything is going well for us we can really push hard,” said the winner.
“I hope at least [to have the] same speed in Finland but let’s see.”
Ogier was quickest out of the blocks in Greece, winning Thursday evening’s Athens street stage before it was Tänak’s turn to take the lead on the first gravel stage of the weekend.
But from there, it was Rovanperä who was boss as he grabbed the lead on SS3 and didn’t look back. Just 3.9 seconds split the trio after Friday, but Rovanperä blew the two World Rally Champions into the weeds across Saturday morning to establish a 39.7s advantage.
While that had decreased to 30.8s by the close of the day, with Rovanperä feeling he’d played it too safe with his suspension set-up, the 20-year-old was devastating on Sunday’s opener and outpaced everyone by 14.1s to put the contest beyond any doubt.
He eventually finished 42.1s clear of the pack.
Tänak’s rally was fraught with problems as he struggled to feel completely at one with his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC and then ran into an electrical gremlin on Sunday that prevented him from using his wipers – not ideal in the rain.
There was another late, brief scare as Tänak could only start his Hyundai “two seconds” before the start of the powerstage with some kind of issue that created some smoke.
“We are really, really lucky we are here but OK,” said Tänak.
Ogier meanwhile wasn’t quite on the same pace as either Rovanperä or Tänak but he did not need to be, as his first podium since Safari Rally Kenya in June – topped up by three points on the powerstage – was well-timed given his rivals’ problems.
Team-mate Evans had been in the thick of the fight after two stages but was thwarted when his Yaris WRC developed a gearbox issue. While he discovered he was unable to shift up gears, he couldn’t shift down again without pulling over and doing it manually under the bonnet, so it naturally cost Evans significant time.
Evans was dumped down to 16th after Friday but recovered to sixth on Sunday, aided by M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux losing three minutes as he was forced to start the antepenultimate stage late when changing the spark plugs to cure an engine issue aboard his Fiesta WRC.
That left Fourmaux 11.4s behind Evans and, though he stunned his rival to grab the position back by 0.8s on the penultimate test, Evans eventually took sixth by 11.7s as Fourmaux made a mistake on the powerstage.
“I spun, so I had to reverse and go back,” he confessed.
“At the end I tried, honestly I tried, and I had a big push in the stage. Unfortunately it’s not sixth position but at least we have tried.”
Neuville had been slightly off-color even before he encountered issues, almost 20s adrift of the lead after three stages. His time consumer would be broken power-steering, which manifested itself in the tire fitting zone and cost Neuville four minutes in penalties as he left 24 minutes late.
He then lost another couple of minutes on SS4 before managing to top the system up with enough fluid to keep it operational. The Hyundai driver robbed WRC2 winner Andreas Mikkelsen of eighth place on the powerstage to secure another vital two championship points.
Team-mate Dani Sordo had a far less complicated but far more forgettable rally, sealing a lonely fourth place after a rally spent driving “in the middle of nothing”.
A jump-start on Friday cost Sordo a valuable 10s when in the podium fight and from there he couldn’t live with the frontrunners, but he had plenty in hand over the M-Sport Fords.
“We couldn’t do much more than fourth position so we just tried to keep it, and next one we try and do better,” Sordo promised.
Gus Greensmith came home fifth, but it was bittersweet after hoping to fight team-mate Fourmaux for the position on Sunday before his engine problem.
Greensmith did not achieve his pre-event target of a stage win either – his best stage performance mirroring his overall position of fifth.
“Seeing our form on rougher rallies this year has generally been pretty strong this weekend so I was hoping for more but for one reason or another it hasn’t come,” he said.
Greensmith’s former co-driver Elliott Edmondson returned to WRC action for the first time since February alongside Mikkelsen in WRC2, and the pair took ninth overall and the class win after a tight battle with the sister Toksport Škoda of Marco Bulacia.
Mikkelsen’s winning margin stood at 16.7s, while a slightly despondent Nikolay Gryazin was a distant third on his first rally with a Ford Fiesta Rally2.
Title protagonist Mads Østberg had a rally to forget, losing a front driveshaft on Friday’s first stage and sacrificing minutes to his rivals with just rear-wheel drive. It then got worse as he made a mistake in the afternoon and had to retire for the day.
Oliver Solberg’s Acropolis was another tale of what might have been. He led on the Hyundai i20 N Rally2’s gravel WRC debut only to be beset by a suspension problem, and then exited on Saturday too when he made a driving error and clipped a road-side bank.
Yohan Rossel won WRC3 on the road, finishing 11th overall before he was disqualified for two separate homologation issues. His title rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz inherited the win ahead of Chris Ingram (pictured below), who impressed to lead after Friday but lost time on Saturday by pumping his tires up too high.
Pierre-Louis Loubet did not make the end of the Acropolis, retiring twice throughout the event. The first exit was on Friday’s final stage when a steering arm broke and left his 2C Hyundai ditched in a precarious position on the road, causing a red flag.
He returned on Saturday but retired the car on the way to Sunday morning’s first stage with a mechanical issue.
Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta did not start the rally as a family emergency for co-driver Keaton Williams on Tuesday morning, two days before the rally began, left insufficient time to source a replacement navigator.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 8m34.865s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +1.198s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +3.916s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +5.701s
5 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +7.039s
Final positions after SS15
1 Rovanperä/Halttunen (Toyota) 3h28m24.6s
2 Tänak/Järveoja (Hyundai) +42.1s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia (Toyota) +1m11.3s
4 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +3m01s
5 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +5m45s
6 Evans/Martin (Toyota) +6m42.7s
7 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +6m54.4s
8 Neuville/Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +8m41.1s
9 Andreas Mikkelsen/Elliott Edmondson (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +9m02.5s
10 Marco Bulacia/Marcelo der Ohannesian (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) +9m19.2s
1 Ogier 180 2 Evans 136 3 Neuville 130 4 Rovanperä 129 5 Tänak 106 6 Takamoto Katsuta 66 7 Craig Breen 60 8 Greensmith 44 9 Sordo 43 10 Fourmaux 36
1 Toyota 348 2 Hyundai 307 3 M-Sport 135 4 Hyundai 2C Competition 44
1 Mikkelsen 126 2 Bulacia 104 3 Mads Østberg 96 4 Nikolay Gryazin 67 5 Jari Huttunen 60 6 Esapekka Lappi 59
1 Rossel 135 2 Kajetanowicz 105 3 Nicolas Ciamin 4 Fabrizio Zaldivar 39 5 Pepe López 36 6 Egon Kaur 32