Kalle Rovanperä made a major gain in his FIA World Rally Championship title bid by moving into the lead of Repco Rally New Zealand as his rivals struggled on Saturday morning.
The Finn – celebrating his 22nd birthday today – started on the back foot when he was dealt a five-second penalty by rally stewards for breaching hybrid strategy rules.
Friday pacesetter Ott Tänak and his Hyundai team-mate Thierry Neuville were both handed identical punishments, gifting the top spot to Elfyn Evans before any cars had even turned a wheel.
Rovanperä’s despair was short-lived, however, and he cut through the pack with a clinical drive on tricky terrain as the land of the long white cloud continued to live up to its name with more relentless rain.
Jumping onto the podium after leapfrogging Yaris colleague Sébastien Ogier in Kaipara Hills, the 22-year-old found himself leading the field with a blistering time on the very next test while Evans spun and Tänak fought with car set-up.
Gus Greensmith’s spectacular roll on the final Komokoriki test caused the stage to be cancelled – allowing Rovanperä’s lead to stand at 4.6sec over Tänak before the loop is repeated this afternoon.
“Gus went off on a very fast place but the main thing is that they are okay,” Rovanperä said after completing the stage non-competitively.
“For me, I was hoping to have a good road position for today and so far I have been able to push, so it’s good.”
But there was more to come. Tänak and Neuville, as well as their team-mate Solberg, were dealt further 10-second sanctions for being in breach of the same rule on Friday’s second passage of Te Akau North.
While Neuville and Solberg remained fourth and fifth overall respectively, Tänak’s penalty dropped him from second to third overall behind Sébastien Ogier. It also means he now trails championship and rally leader Kalle Rovanperä by 14.6sec with seven stages remaining.
Providing he wins the rally, Rovanperä only needs to outscore Tänak by seven points to wrap-up the drivers’ title at this 11th round. As it stands, he is on course to better the Estonian’s points haul by 10 before Wolf Power Stage bonus points are accounted for.