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WRC Estonia: Untouchable Rovanpera wins nine stages in a row

Kalle Rovanpera produced a perfect drive to win all of Saturday’s nine World Rally Championship stages to open up a commanding lead at Rally Estonia.

The reigning world champion delivered his best display of the season to date to transform a 3.0s overnight advantage into a 34.9s over Hyundai's Thierry Neuville.

Neuville lost 6.5s to a slow puncture during the morning loop but was unable to match the pace of the Toyota driver.

Hyundai's Esapekka Lappi will head into Sunday with a 7.3s margin over Toyota's Elfyn Evans after an intense battle over third that ebbed and flowed over the day.

Teemu Suninen ended the day in a lonely fifth (+1m41.5s) on his Rally1 debut ahead of M-Sport's Pierre-Louis Loubet (+2m25.5s), Toyota's Takamoto Katsuta (+2m32.5s), and home hero Ott Tanak, who recovered to eighth (+5m55.2s) after starting the day in 11th position.

After a clean sweep of the morning's four stages, Rovanpera's relentless pace showed no signs of abating when the action resumed on Saturday afternoon.

The Toyota driver notched up his fifth consecutive fastest time in Stage 13 (Elva 11.73km) with a time 3.6s faster than his nearest rival Neuville. It was a result that came as a surprise to the rally leader.

"I was sure that for the first time today, it was not a good time. I was not pushing much, for sure the driving was clean, but I felt like I left some time in there," said Rovanpera.

Lappi was only 0.2s slower than team-mate Neuville but crucially the Finn was 0.6s quicker than Evans to edge further clear in the fight for third overall.

Outside of the battle for the podium places, Tanak's pass through the stage was hampered by a steering rack issue that he claimed stemmed from mistake made during the midday service. He was able to rectify the geometry of his Puma before stage 14 (Kanepi, 16.48km).

Rovanpera extended his stage winning streak in Kanepi with yet another mesmerising performance. Neuville had posted a benchmark that seemed a contender to challenge for a stage win before Rovanpera blew that out of the water by 3.8s to extend his rally lead to 27.7s.

Lappi once again had the edge over Evans to put 3.7s between himself and the Welshman as the fight for third overall continued.

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

There was however drama for Loubet and Katsuta, who were involved in a battle for fifth overall.

Loubet was forced to complete the stage without hybrid power which helped Katsuta the gap between the pair to 6.7s. Loubet was able to see assistance to restore his hybrid power at the following regroup.

Although as Katsuta reached the stage end there was panic etched over his face when his GR Yaris appeared to be stuck in stage mode, before the car lost power completely at the time control.

Luckily he was able to fire the car up again after he and co-driver Aaron Johnston pushed the car out of the control zone.

Katsuta was back up to speed for stage 15 after revealing that he had suffered myriad issues including an intercom problem that prompted the Japanese to switch crash helmets with Johnston. But it was his rally leading team-mate Rovanpera that continued to claim the headlines in the second pass through Elva.

Completely at ease behind the wheel, Rovanpera went on to score his ninth stage win of the event to open up a 30.9s lead over Neuville, who was 10s clear of third-placed Lappi.

The yo-yo battle between Evans and Lappi for third swung back in the former's direction as the gap came down to 2.7s. Evans was able to take a second out of Lappi, who was visibly distraught with his effort having "pushed like hell" in the test.

However, Lappi dug deep to fight back on the following test, Stage 16, to post a time 2.9s faster than Evans to push the margin back out to 5.6s.

It was Rovanpera at the top of the timesheets as he continued his masterclass display by racking up an eighth stage win in a row by 2.7s from Neuville, who had a brief glance with an embankment during his run.

Rovanpera completed a clean sweep of Saturday's stages by taking the final super special of the day by 0.9s. Lappi was Rovanpera's nearest rival on the 3.35km short blast as the former put another 1.7s between him and Evans in the fight for the final podium.

Four more stages await the crews on Sunday.

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