The Toyota driver started the day with a 10.8s advantage but a stunning drive resulted in the Finn to clean sweep the trio of stages to open up a 52.4s-lead over Hyundai’s Dani Sordo.
Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi has moved to third, 57.0s adrift, but ahead of Thierry Neuville (+57.9s) and M-Sport’s Ott Tanak (+1m34.1s) after team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet crashed out of fifth on stage 10.
Rovanpera produced the drive of the rally to date on stage 9 (Vieira do Minho 26.61km) after delivering a mesmerising time, 12.8s faster than the next best set by Lappi.
Making the most of the last-starting position of the Rally1 runners, Rovanpera more than doubled his overall rally lead on his way to a fifth stage win of the rally. When asked to explain his speed, he replied: “I just woke up today and thought we should drive a bit of rally, so that is what we tried to do.”
Lappi was unhappy with his performance but it was enough to climb from fifth to third overall. His effort was 0.5s quicker than Sordo as he began to chip away at the gap between his more experienced team-mate sitting second overall.
The third Hyundai of Neuville moved to fourth after M-Sport’s Loubet suffered damage to his rear wing and dropped 6.6s to the Belgian.
The battle at the front changed complexion again after Rovanpera won stage 10 (Amarante 37.24km), the longest of the rally. The Finn was 3.3s faster than Tanak, who was continuing his recovery from a puncture on Friday’s stage four albeit struggling with his Puma.
“We could improve the balance a bit from the previous stage but I am still having quite a massive struggle with the suspension,” he said. “I’m still riding this wild horse. It is like I’ve never driven a rally car before, it’s so challenging.”
Rovanpera’s lead ballooned to 45.8s courtesy of a struggling Sordo, who was battling with his soft tyres. Sordo’s time loss combined with Lappi’s improved pace brought the latter back into the fight for second overall, with only 3.3s operating her drop heading into the morning’s final stage.
The leaderboard did however undergo a change when Loubet crashed out of the rally less than a kilometre from the stage end. The Frenchman clipped a bank with his left front which appeared to break the steering and send his Puma across the road and into another bank.
The stage continued with the car partially blocking the road which required drivers to slow down to navigate around the stricken Puma.
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