Thierry Neuville led throughout Friday’s treacherous opening leg of WRC Rally Croatia, despite only winning one stage of the all-asphalt event.
It was the Hyundai driver’s consistency which ultimately came to the fore as the roads in the hills west of capital city Zagreb tested the mettle of the FIA World Rally Championship’s leading crews. Running a special paint scheme on his i20 N Rally1 (above) to commemorate his teammate, Ireland’s Craig Breen, who died in a pre-event testing crash last week, Neuville ended the grueling day just 5.7s clear of second-placed challenger Elfyn Evans’ Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.
Neuville was unhappy with his car’s morning setup, but took the lead after the day’s second stage when Sebastien Ogier, winner of the day’s opener, dropped over one and a half minutes carrying out a mid-stage wheel change on his GR Yaris.
The Belgian remained at the helm throughout the afternoon, although Evans cut 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 tires, which proved to be the optimum choice.
“We’ve done a decent job, but it hasn’t been easy at all,” Neuville admitted after the leg’s eighth and final stage. “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 tire gambles did not pay off was Ott Tanak. The Estonian bolted wet-weather rubber onto his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 for the second run through the Stojdraga-Hartje test, but conditions remained mostly dry and he fell behind Esapekka Lappi’s Hyundai after dropping 17.0s.
Tanak responded in the penultimate stage by besting Lappi to reclaim third overall, reaching the overnight halt 3.4s clear of his Finnish rival and 24.3s adrift of second-placed Evans.
Ogier, meanwhile, valiantly fought his way back up to fifth, 50.3s in arrears of Lappi. The eight-time champ came to Croatia as the WRC points leader, despite running only a limited program of rallies in 2023, but will be hard-pressed to stay there if Neuville continues at the sharp end and comes away with a significant haul of points.
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta overtook M-Sport Ford driver Pierre-Louis Loubet in the final stage to grab sixth, while reigning WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera languished in eighth overall. The GR Yaris driver won last year’s Rally Croatia, but currently trails the front-runners by more than two minutes after he, too, stopped to change a wheel at the same location as teammate Ogier.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Yohan Rossel left his opponents floundering to build a convincing lead over Nikolay Gryazin.
Rossel, who’s running his first event since January’s season-opening Monte Carlo Rally, announced his return to the series by punching in a trio of fastest stage times aboard his Citroen C3.
The car received a number of technical upgrades ahead of Rally Croatia and those tweaks seem to be suiting the Frenchman. He cleared the day without errors and carried a sizeable 29.9s advantage over Gryazin’s Skoda Fabia RS at the end of the leg.
“It has not been easy, but it’s been a good day for us,” said Rossel, who held second in the WRC2 points before the rally. “We will see how it goes tomorrow.”
Saturday’s second leg follows a similar format to Friday’s opener, with four stages, driven morning and afternoon, adding up to 72.45 competitive miles
WRC Rally Croatia, leading positions after Day One, SS8
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 1h16m02.4s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +5.7s
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +30.0s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +33.4s
5 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m23.7s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m52.1s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicola Gilsoul (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m52.9s
8 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m40.3s
9 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +3m20.0s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +3m49.9s