Puncture sinks Rovanpera as Neuville leads Rally Japan

Wheel trouble dumped newly crowned world champion Kalle Rovanpera out of contention at Rally Japan on Saturday, as Belgium's Thierry Neuville took a slender lead into the final day.

Finland's Rovanpera, who wrapped up this season's title in New Zealand last month, was 6min 41.7sec behind Neuville at the end of the day after a double dose of bad luck in the morning session.

First he slammed into a wall on the opening stage, puncturing a tyre that he and co-driver Jonne Halttunen had to change in a fatal blow to their chances.

Then Rovanpera had another shunt on the next stage that buckled his only spare tyre, forcing him to put the deflated tyre back on just so he could make it back to the garage.

Rovanpera has won six of 12 races in a dominating display this season but he conceded he "could not do much more" with his Toyota after Saturday's mishaps.

"There was something on a right-hand corner where we got a bit close but it was not a big hit," said Rovanpera, who started the day in third place, just 5.1sec off the lead.

"I have no spares and the car is not 100 percent on the right corner. It's not working and turning in as well as it should."

Leader Neuville was 4.0sec ahead of Elfyn Evans after overhauling the British driver's slim overnight advantage over the course of the day.

Evans won the day's opening stage but Neuville performed better in the afternoon to set up a titanic tussle for Sunday's final day of the season.

"The day has been good to us but it has been a challenging one," said Neuville.

"We have been struggling a bit with the balance throughout the day but we got it better for the afternoon.

"Let's see what we can do tomorrow."

Evans said that he had "lost the feeling with the front of the car" in the afternoon session.

Estonia's Ott Tanak was in third place, 39.9sec behind Neuville.

Eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier won three of the day's stages but was still 2min 46.7 behind Neuville after being forced to changed a flat tyre on Friday's second stage.

Standings: 1. Thierry Neuville-Martijn Wydaeghe (BEL/Hyundai) 1hr 51min 28.3sec, 2. Elfyn Evans-Scott Martin (GBR/Toyota) at 4.0sec, 3. Ott Tanak-Martin Jarveoja (EST/Hyundai) 39.9, 4. Takamoto Katsuta-Aaron Johnston (JPN-IRE/Toyota) 1:04.5, 5. Sebastien Ogier-Vincent Landais (FRA/Toyota) 2:46.7, 6. Gus Greensmith-Jonas Andersson (GBR-SWE/M-Sport Ford) 3:25.4

Leading retirements: Dani Sordo-Candido Carrera (ESP/Hyundai)

Stage winners: Ogier (SS1, SS9, SS11, SS12), Evans (SS4, SS5, SS8), Rovanpera (SS2, SS6), Tanak (SS10), Neuville (SS14)

amk/smw