After jumping from third to the lead courtesy of four stage wins in the morning, Evans came under severe pressure from Tanak, who won three consecutive stages as the afternoon loop began.
Title contender Evans responded winning the day’s penultimate test before sharing the spoils with Tanak on the final stage, held on the streets of host city Jyvaskyla at night, to hold a 9.1s lead over Tanak.
Overnight leader Craig Breen saw his charge fade as the day progressed, dropping 19.5s behind Evans in third overall, with Toyota wildcard Esapekka Lappi fourth after Kalle Rovanpera’s demise on Stage 10.
Saturday had one final sting in the tail as title contender Thierry Neuville stopped on the penultimate stage with damage to the front of his Hyundai i20, effectively ending his slim championship hopes.
That handed championship leader Sebastien Ogier fifth overall in front of the distant M-Sport Ford duo of Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux, the latter making his first WRC Finland start.
Tanak ended Evans’ streak of five consecutive stage wins, that stretched back to Friday night, with victory on the afternoon’s first stage as the battle for the lead went up a notch.
A fully committed run from Tanak resulted in the Estonian edging Evans by 0.6s.
“The grip is higher now and the car is easier to drive,” said Tanak. “The feeling was better and we will keep the pressure on now.”
Breen was third fastest but lost 2.3s to Tanak after clipping a hay bale early in the stage that damaged the dive plane on the front left of his i20, which affected the car’s aero balance. Ultimately it allowed Evans to extend his lead to 7.3s.
Only 4.1s covered the top six on the stage as Neuville was the best of the next group pipping Lappi by a tenth, who was 0.1s faster than an improving Ogier, benefitting from changes to his Yaris at service.
Tanak continued his charge on Stage 12, winning the test by 1.2s from leader Evans, who was beginning to feel the pressure from behind.
Tanak’s victory earned the Estonian second spot overall as Breen again lost time, this time dropping two seconds, which was enough for the Hyundai pair to switch positions by 0.2s.
Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport
“The two boys are going at it hammer and tongs,” said Breen. “I tried my best – I had quite a perfect stage to be honest with you.”
Lappi was pushing hard in the battle for fourth overall and managed to maintain the position ahead of Neuville and Ogier, who were both enjoying much stronger showings on the gravel stages.
Tanak increased the pressure up another level on Evans, taking another 0.2s out of the lead after rattling off his third consecutive stage win on Stage 13 as the light began to fade.
Evans complained of understeer but managed to maintain a strong pace as a head-to-head fight emerged between the Welshman and the 2019 world champion.
Breen’s downward slide continued as he dropped 4.2s with by far his worst stage drive of the rally. The Hyundai driver ended the test with the sixth fastest time behind Lappi, Neuville and Ogier.
Evans managed to put the brakes on Tanak’s charge by winning the penultimate test of the day as darkness descended.
The pair both were on the ragged edge but it was Evans that emerged with a 1.6s advantage despite flirting with a ditch at high-speed.
Breen’s fight for victory continued to diminish after losing 6.2s to Evans that put him 18.3s adrift.
“When you have it in your hands and it starts to go away it’s a little disappointing, but we have to be realistic,“ said part-timer Breen. “I think to get that last one per cent is very, very difficult.”
The big story from the stage was the demise of Neuville as the title contender pulled over 10.5km into the 20km stage with damage to the front of his i20.
Television cameras captured the Belgian slowing and without his bonnet light pod, before he pulled off onto an access road.
Lappi, Ogier, Greensmith and Fourmaux ensured seven WRC runners completed the stage.
Evans and Tanak ended the day by clocking identical times on the final Harju super special held under lights, to keep the battle for victory in the balance.
Rally Finland concludes on Sunday with a further four stages.