The Hyundai driver emerged from a dramatic Saturday with a 26.2s lead over Rovanpera, having started the day 36.4s adrift of the Finn.
Neuville claimed two stage wins across the morning before slashing the deficit to Rovanpera to 10.9s after the latter overshot a hairpin. The Belgian assumed the lead when Rovanpera switched into cruise mode after his title rival and Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans crashed out on stage 11.
With Rovanpera knowing Evans’s title hopes are all but over, he cruised through the afternoon allowing Neuville to open up a healthy lead.
Hyundai’s Teemu Suninen (+2m58,8s), Gregoire Munster (3m52.2s), Pierre-Louis Loubet (+9m05.8s), top Rally2 competitor Adrien Fourmaux (9m12.3s) and WRC2 leader Emil Lindholm (9m18.8s) completed the top 10.
Crews faced dry roads for the first time since Thursday as Saturday’s afternoon began. While the road surface was no longer wet there was plenty of slippery mud that had been dragged on to navigate.
Ogier coped with the conditions the best to score a first -stage win of the event to date on stage 12 (Schärdinger Innviertel, 15.72km). The Frenchman pipped rally leader Neuville by 1.5s, who was keen not to overload his tyres.
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG Toyota GR Yaris Rally1
“First time of the weekend we have a bit of a grip, but in the mud, it’s extremely slippy. The grip changes are actually bigger than before,” said Ogier.
Tanak enjoyed a clean run to set the third fastest time ahead of Katsuta and Rovanpera, who posted identical times, both 4.9s adrift.
After struggling for confidence during the morning loop, Katsuta joked that his Toyota engineers managed to “change his brain” resulting in a much stronger performance. The run elevated the Japanese back ahead of Suninen into fifth overall.
With Evans now absent from proceedings, Rovanpera could afford to take extra care on the muddy sections which meant the deficit to Neuville grew to 14.5s.
That gap increased to 26.7s as Rovanpera continued to adopt cruse mode through Stage 13 (Mühltal 27.15km), the same piece of road where he overshot a hairpin left in the morning.
“It’s a bit more difficult [having to survive]. Usually, it’s easier when you have proper pace [but] now when you are braking…