Tanak won two of the day’s eight gravel stages, but the combination of changeable weather and a fast Rovanpera provided a tense battle for the lead on Saturday afternoon.
Tanak, the 2019 world champion, started the day with a 3.8 second lead over Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi but finished it with an 8.4 second margin over championship leader Rovanpera as team-mate Lappi went 21 seconds adrift from fourth to second overall.
A fierce head-to-head between Tanak and Rovanpera dominated the afternoon stages as the latter won five and shared a stage win with his rival, while nibbling away at chunks of the lead by Tanak.
Lappi, hampered by a broken windshield, drops to third place with the Finns 35.2 behind. His teammate Elfyn Evans won a stage in the morning but struggled to match his stable mates and lost ground due to a left rear suspension problem, which left him adrift in fourth position.
Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) finished fifth on Saturday at 2’05.5 seconds, while Takamoto Katsuta was sixth ahead of Gus Greensmith (M-Sport), who led the charge for the Ford team after the retirement of Craig Breen on Saturday morning.
The stages had dried out by the time the crews started the afternoon loop, but deep ruts provided an additional challenge.
It was a challenge Rovanpera and Tanak seemed to relish as the pair battled it out on Stage 15. Rovanpera won the battle by edging the rally leader by 0.2 seconds after two ultra-committed races. Although it appeared that the Finn may have pushed a tire off the rim slightly.
Rovanpera’s win in the rally’s third leg put the Finn within 1.5 seconds of second overall held by fellow countryman Lappi, whose vision was hampered by a cracked windscreen caused by a stone wanderer thrown by her car.
Lappi lost 1.9s in the stage while Evans dispatched 5.3s as the Welshman began to give up the fight up front.
M-Sport’s Pierre-Louis Loubet established himself as the best of the rest with the fifth-fastest time, while Neuville, who was fifth overall, opted to take a sensible approach.
Rovanpera won stage 16 1.2 seconds behind Tanak as the local hero continued to pressure the leader, but the Hyundai driver continued to fight.
Rovanpera’s stage time lifted the Toyota driver to second overall ahead of a frustrated Lappi, who struggled to look through his damaged windscreen.
Lappi was only able to set the fourth fastest time, losing 7.2 seconds against Rovanpera, while Evans also struggled with the handling of his GR Yaris.
“I’m struggling,” Evans said. “I don’t have the feeling I want in these drier conditions and the car moves a lot. Not easy.”
For the third stage in a row, Rovanpera and Tanak locked horns, but this time the pair clocked incredibly identical times to share the stage win.
Rovanpera admitted he was a little more “sensitive” due to the loose rocks on the stage, while Tanak called his run “perfect”.
Lappi’s visibility issues sometimes left the Finn guessing when it came to placing his car in certain corners and as a result he fell even further behind the front two.
Teammate Evans also had developing drama caused by an impact on the stage that appeared to knock his left rear wheel out of alignment, requiring repair on the next section of road.
Katsuta shipped more time to Neuville in the battle for fifth place, but there was a change of position behind as Greensmith managed to overhaul M-Sport teammate Loubet for seventh place.
Rovanpera ended the day on a high, taking 3.1 seconds from Tanak to win stage 18 and close in on the rally leader.
Neuville was third fastest in the test ahead of Greensmith as Lappi and Evans faded due to their respective visibility and suspension issues.
Rally Finland will come to an end after four more stages on Sunday.