Thierry Neuville leads overnight in Croatia from Toyota’s Elfyn Evans after a day which was packed with action and drama from the off. Despite only taking victory in one stage, Neuville showed consistency to lead Evans by 5.7s. M-Sport’s Ott Tanak rounds off the top three 30s back.
After Thursday’s emotional opening ceremony in which the rallying community paid their respects to Craig Breen, who had passed in a testing accident last week, the competition got underway in earnest on Friday morning. The first day begins with the rally heading to the highland areas and the two longest stages kicking things off. Mali Lipovec – Grdanjci and Stojdraga – Hartje leads into the two smaller stages of Krasic – Vrskovac and Pecurkovo Brdo – Mreznicki before a midday service. The four stages are then run again in the afternoon.
The day started with Sebastien Ogier jumping to the front of the pack after the opening stage due to running first and having a clean road, however, it would not last long as the Frenchman had to change a tyre in the second test as he ran through a pothole. This location also claimed his teammate, Kalle Rovanpera which meant that two Toyotas had run into trouble before the day’s third stage.
Ogier’s time loss meant that Neuville, one of three Hyundai’s adorned with a beautiful Irish flag livery in tribute to Breen, moved to the top of the standings. The Belgian was not as comfortable in the car as he had wanted but showed brilliant consistency to stay ahead of a new challenger, Elfyn Evans.
“We have done a decent job, but it hasn’t been easy at all,” said Neuville. “It was a bit better at the end of the day and I am really having more fun in the car this afternoon. Hopefully, we can finish in first place at the end – that would be a great achievement for the team and us.”
Elfyn Evans was initially very lucky as he suffered from a slow puncture at the end of SS3. With minimal time lost, Evans spent the afternoon working into Neuville’s lead. By making the correct tyre strategy along with the Hyundai squad, Evans could pull a gap on the rest of the field and finish just over 5s behind the leading car.
Ott Tanak started the day suffering from a steering issue in his Puma and stalling in the opening run. Things didn’t get much better for the Estonian as a wrong tyre call, in anticipation of rain, meant that he lost 17s in a stage on the afternoon leg. This allowed Esapekka Lappi to leapfrog him into third but after the penultimate stage of the day, Tanak would get back ahead of the Finn.
Lappi’s day was clean but lacking confidence over the dirty asphalt meant that he would sit 3.4s behind Tanak in fourth. Although Ogier had issues earlier in the day, the Frenchman pulled back as much time as possible to sit in fifth just 1min 23.7s behind Neuville. Takamoto Katsuta overtook Pierre-Louis Loubet in the afternoon to grab sixth, but Rovanpera still sits in eighth after his earlier trouble.
In WRC2, Yohan Rossel leads the class with a 29.9s advantage over Nikolay Gryazin but the Citroen driver also sits ninth overall.
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