Neuville claimed the spoils in the inaugural three-country asphalt rally that saw the WRC compete across the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany in one event for the first time. The Belgian took his second victory of the season by 57.6s from Rovanpera.
However, the result was enough for Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen to become only the sixth pairing in WRC history to defend the world title after Toyota team-mate and rival Elfyn Evans failed to outscore the 23-year-old Finn.
The podium was completed by M-Sport’s Ott Tanak, who finished 1m52.8s behind Neuville.
Neuville led the rally at the end of Thursday’s two super special stages held in the Czech Republic but the Hyundai driver lost that advantage by stage three.
Extreme wet conditions dominated Friday’s stages producing incredibly treacherous conditions which benefited title contenders Rovanpera and Evans at the top of the road order.
Rovanpera once again showcased his ability when road surfaces become slippery, to deliver a clean sweep of stage winning times on Friday morning, This moved the Finn into 29.2s lead over rival Evans, who climbed from eighth overall.
Evans was unable to match Rovanpera’s pace across the afternoon and dropped behind Neuville to third. Rovanpera went into Saturday’s stages in Austria and Germany with a 36.4s lead over Neuville with Evans, 47.2s in arrears.
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1
While Evans felt the gap to his title rival was uncatchable on pure driving alone, he was offered a glimmer of hope when Rovanpera made a rare error on stage 10. The Finn overshot a hairpin left and was lucky that his GR Yaris found a gap between the trees, but he lost 24.7s in the process.
This put Neuville within 10.9s of Rovanpera before stage 11 which provided an ultimately decisive moment in the championship.
Sitting in third position, Evans locked an inside front wheel before running off the damp road at a relatively low speed. The Welshman’s GR Yaris hit a wooden shed which damaged the front of the car and ripped off a rear wheel. Evans was forced to retire from the day but rejoined the rally on Sunday and claimed the Power Stage.
Rovanpera was made aware of the drama that struck his title rival before starting the stage and elected to back off, which handed Neuville the rally lead.
With Rovanpera realistically only needing to finish the…