This morning’s four Croatia Rally special stages belonged to Thierry Neuville. The Belgian won three to lead the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship by 7.4s at mid-leg service in his Hyundai i20.
World champion Sébastien Ogier fought back this afternoon when the tests were repeated. He won three in a row, the middle of which marked his 600th WRC stage victory, to overhaul Toyota Yaris team-mate Elfyn Evans for second.
Neuville ended 7.7s clear of the Frenchman, with Evans three-tenths back in third.
Such was the fast and furious pace at Croatia’s WRC debut that both Neuville and Ogier survived close calls. Neuville’s i20 was pitched onto two wheels after hitting a bank in the final test, while Ogier escaped after clouting the banking in the opener.
Kalle Rovanperä suffered more than both. The youngest driver ever to lead the WRC at 20 drifted wide on a right bend 5.4km into the opening Rude – Plešivica test where Ogier was so fortunate. His Yaris plunged down a bank, coming to rest against a tree and the car was damaged too severely to restart tomorrow.
“It was the last downhill section which was really slippery. I lost the car already in the entry of the corner, I never made the proper racing line and we went straight off. A bit too much speed and understeer and that’s the result, my mistake,” Rovanperä admitted.
Although it was dry and warm, the stages south-west of capital city Zagreb became increasingly slippery as drivers cutting corners dragged gravel onto the asphalt. Rovanperä’s demise left Neuville to open the roads with the best grip.
“It was a tough day for everybody,” said Neuville. “This morning when Kalle went off, our main goal was to try to benefit from a good road position and try to make some gap to the others which we managed to do. This afternoon I tried to extend, but struggled a bit in some places when there was a lot of gravel.”
Evans was sandwiched by Neuville and Ogier before sliding to third in the closing stage, having prevented a Neuville clean sweep this morning by winning SS3.
Ott Tänak was the only driver to choose Pirelli’s hard compound P Zero tyres solely this morning and the Estonian could not get the best out of them in his i20. Set-up changes improved his feeling this afternoon and he won one stage, without ever being comfortable.
He ended fourth, 31.9s behind Neuville and 22.9s clear of a deflated Craig Breen, who never found his rhythm on his first all-asphalt WRC rally since 2018.
Adrien Fourmaux was buzzing after an impressive drive to sixth in a Ford Fiesta in his top-flight debut.
Saturday’s second leg is the longest of the weekend at 121.92km. It is based in the same area as today, traversing stunning springtime scenery in the Žumberak nature park. Four morning stages are repeated in the afternoon after service in Zagreb.