Thierry Neuville led throughout Friday’s treacherous opening leg despite only winning one stage of Croatia Rally.
It was the Hyundai i20 N driver’s consistency which ultimately came to the fore as asphalt roads in the hills west of capital city Zagreb tested the mettle of the FIA World Rally Championship’s leading crews. He ended the gruelling day just 5.7sec clear of second-placed challenger Elfyn Evans.
Neuville was unhappy with his car’s morning set-up but swooped into the lead after SS2 when championship leader Sébastien Ogier, winner of the day’s opener, dropped over one and a half minutes carrying out a mid-stage wheel change on his Toyota GR Yaris.
The Belgian remained at the helm throughout the afternoon although Evans, driving another Toyota, sliced his advantage by more than half as scattered rain clouds loomed over the stages. Both drivers stuck to a mixed combination of hard and soft compound Pirelli tyres, which proved to be the right choice.
“We have done a decent job, but it hasn’t been easy at all,” Neuville admitted. “It was a bit better at the end of the day and I am really happy that we had a bit 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 for us.”
One driver for whom tyre gambles did not pay off was Ott Tänak. The Estonian bolted wet weather rubber onto his M-Sport Ford Puma for Stojdraga – Hartje 2, however, conditions remained mostly dry and he fell behind Esapekka Lappi after dropping 17.0sec.
Tänak responded in the penultimate stage by ousting the Hyundai man to reclaim third overall, reaching the overnight halt 3.4sec clear of his rival and 24.3sec adrift of Evans. Ogier, meanwhile, valiantly fought his way back up to fifth another 50.3sec in arrears.
Takamoto Katsuta overtook Pierre-Louis Loubet in the final stage to grab sixth, while Kalle Rovanperä languished in eighth overall. The Yaris youngster won last year’s fixture but currently trails the frontrunners by over two minutes after he too stopped to change a wheel at the same location as team-mate Ogier.
Masterful Rossel dominates in WRC2
WRC2 leader Yohan Rossel was ninth and left his WRC2 opponents floundering to build a convincing lead over Toksport WRT2’s Nikolay Gryazin in the premier support category.
Rossel, who is starting his first event since Rallye Monte-Carlo in January, signalled his return to the series by punching in a trio of fastest stage times aboard his Citroën C3 Rally2.
The car received a number of technical upgrades ahead of this rally and those tweaks seem to be suiting the Frenchman. He cleared the day without errors and carried a sizeable 29.9sec advantage over Gryazin’s Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 at close of play.
Rossel’s compatriot Nicolas Ciamin also showed good form on his first FIA World Rally Championship start since 2021. The 25-year-old, who drives a Volkswagen Polo, completed the podium just 7.7sec behind Gryazin after notching up two stage wins.
More than half a minute back in fourth overall, Citroën youngster Alejandro Cachón is on course to secure a personal best result ahead of Sami Pajari, who ended the day fifth in a Škoda.
But Pajari cannot afford to relax as he has team-mate and defending champion Emil Lindholm just eight-tenths of a second behind. The Finn was forced to carry out road-side repairs when his Fabia’s transmission linkage failed, costing precious time in SS2.
Gus Greensmith, winner of the previous round in Mexico, sits eighth after stopping to change a wheel in SS2. His former M-Sport Ford colleague Adrien Fourmaux also dropped time with a throttle issue, while Grégoire Munster retired after crashing his Fiesta.
Creighton, Pellier set up two-car showdown in WRC3 / Junior WRC
William Creighton and Laurent Pellier are engaged in a tight battle at the top of the WRC3 and Junior WRC field.
The rivals, who drive matching M-Sport Poland-prepared Ford Fiesta Rally3 cars, interestingly used the same stage to produce their biggest pushes of the day. It was Pellier landing the first blow, going an impressive 15.4sec clear of the field through the rally’s opening stage – Mali Lipovec – Grdanjci.
But when crews returned to the same stage immediately following midday service, Creighton produced an even more impressive feat, completing 18.8sec quicker than Pellier to gain the rally lead by 3.9sec.
The fight remained tight over the day’s three remaining stages but Creighton was still able to gain nearly two more seconds over Pellier to complete the day with a nine-second buffer.
Saturday’s second leg follows a similar format with four stages, driven morning and afternoon, totalling 116.60km.