After a seeming eternity since the last round of the World Rally Championship in the winter wonderland of Northern Finland, the series moves onto the tight, winding tarmac stages of Croatia. It marks the first time that Croatia has played host to the WRC and the first all asphalt rally since 2019, the covid affected 2020 calendar didn’t feature a full asphalt event as Germany & Ypres were culled from the calendar & Rally Monza was affected by snow & ice, along with muddy conditions around the Monza circuit itself.
Croatia’s stages are characterised by narrow, undulating stages in and around forests. Despite the tarmac stages, drivers would be left wanting for grip on the slippery tarmac surface which didn’t offer as much purchase as expected.
The opening day got off to a dramatic start, with just over 5km’s run, the youngest driver to lead the WRC drivers championship, Kalle Rovanperra slid off the opening stage into a tree. Kalle carried too much speed into a corner and understeered off the stage. The damage to his Toyota Yaris was terminal, the crack Toyota Gazoo squad unable to fix his car meaning an early exit for the young Finn. It was a stark warning to the other drivers that the Croatian stages could & would bite back if too many liberties were taken.
Thierry Neuville would take an early lead, chased by Elfyn Evans & Sebastien Ogier in their Toyota’s. Evans provided the initial challenge to Neuville, who was imperious on Friday, but Sebastien Ogier managed to dig that little bit deeper, leapfrogging Evans to second place by end of play on Friday. Ott Tanak & Craig Breen both struggled to find pace in their Hyundai i20’s. Tanak due to the wrong tyre choice and a misstep with the Hyundai’s set up & Breen who struggled to find his groove, having not competed in a tarmac rally since 2018 in a WRC car.
Saturday saw the three way battle between Neuville, Ogier & Evans resumed at the top of the timesheets. Thierry Neuville dropped out of the lead in the morning, fitting a mix of soft & hard compound tyres to the Hyundai looked like a good move at first, but as the temperatures climbed Neuville struggled to keep the rear of the Hyundai in check. Ogier & Evans chose hard tyres all around which was to their benefit, Ogier paced the morning and climbed into the lead with Elfyn Evans in tow, who jumped into second, the Toyota duo dropping Neuville down to third. Ogier would pick up a puncture later in the day which allowed Evans to snatch the lead and allow Neuville to close back into contention. Ogier was able to close back up onto Evans and jump back into the lead.
Ott Tanak endured a case of dejavu, struggling with tyres again on the Saturday and unable to make any progress towards the top 3. Adrien Formeaux on his debut in a full fat WRC car finished Saturday in fifth, a stunning performance from the young Frenchman who is hotly tipped to be a future champion.
The final day dawned with the promise of a close battle for the win, but even before the stage began, the drama began. Sebastien Ogier, turning into a junction enroute to the opening special stage was hit by a member of the public in their vehicle. The vehicle in question appeared to be speeding down the road & undertook Ogier, colliding with the Toyota Yaris. While there were no injuries, Ogier’s Toyota Yaris sustained bodywork damage affecting the aerodynamics of the car. There was a short delay as Ogier had to wait at the scene until Police arrived, Ogier was allowed on his way by the authorities, but it was not the start to the today Ogier wanted.
Elfyn Evans pounced, taking advantage of the shaken Ogier by winning both morning stages and snatching the lead. The final Wolf Power Stage saw Evans lead Ogier with a scant 3.9 second advantage with Thierry Neuville breathing down Ogier’s neck in third position. Ogier threw everything into the final 14km of the rally to make up the deficit to Evans. The Welshman made an uncharacteristic error, sliding wide onto a grass verge near the finish line, it was enough to allow Ogier to clinch victory by just 0.6 of a second, the third closest finish in WRC history and an event that will go down in the annals of WRC history as one of the greats. Thierry Neuville rounded out the podium with Ott Tanak in fourth. Adrien Formeaux finished in fifth on his debut in a WRC car, a stunning achievement as he fronted the likes of more experienced Gus Greensmith, Takamoto Katsuta & Craig Breen.
Sebastien Ogier reclaimed the championship lead, trailed by Thierry Neuville, Elfyn Evans & Ott Tanak. Kalle Rovanperra meanwhile lies fifth after a dismal rally, lasting a sniff over 5km’s.
The next round of the championship takes place 20th-23rd of May on the iconic stages of Rally Portugal.
WRC Croatia Rally results:
- Sebastian Ogier
- Elfyn Evans
- Thierry Neuville
- Ott Tanak
- Adrien Formeaux
WRC Drivers standings:
- Sebastian Ogier – 61 points
- Thierry Neuville – 53 points
- Elfyn Evans – 51 points
- Ott Tanak – 40 points
- Kalle Rovanperra – 39 points.
Manufacturers championship standings:
- Toyota gazoo Racing WRT – 138 points
- Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team – 111 points
- M-Sport Ford World Rally Team – 42 points
- Hyundai 2C Competition – 28 points