WRC Croatia: Rovanpera pulls clear after dominant Friday

Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera has moved into a commanding lead after dominating the World Rally Championship's opening day at Rally Croatia.

The WRC points leader was unfazed by the tricky wet and muddy conditions, winning six of the day’s eight asphalt tests.

Rovanpera ended Friday having built up a 1m04s lead over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who managed to bounce back from a 40s penalty for checking into service four minutes late after an alternator failure forced the Belgian and his co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe to push the car 800m back to the service park.

Ott Tanak briefly moved into second overall after Neuville’s penalty, but the Hyundai driver dropped to third after losing 20.2s to a puncture on the penultimate stage of the day.

Craig Breen led M-Sport Ford’s charge in fourth with the Irishman firmly in the hunt for the podium, albeit 1m35.2s adrift. The Irishman could have been higher up the rankings had he not dropped 12s in an off road excursion on Stage 2.

Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg completed Friday in fifth ahead of Toyota's Elfyn Evans as he continued his recovery from two front-left punctures in the morning loop. Takamoto Katsuta and Gus Greensmith completed the top eight, the latter suffering two punctures across the afternoon.

Crashes for Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi and M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux resulted in early retirements alongside Pierre-Louis Loubet, who suffered three punctures in the first two stages of the morning.

Rovanpera kicked off the afternoon by winning the first of the afternoon stages but admitted he took a more cautious approach given the deteriorating condition of the road.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

Although much slower compared to the morning pass, he still managed to clock a time that was 0.6s faster than a recovering Neuville, who managed to jump from fourth back to second overall following his time penalty for checking into service late. Neuville’s gallant effort came despite having to drive with his “eyes” and not to the pace notes.

Tanak was third fastest ahead of Breen, who admitted he was amazed to have avoided a puncture after declaring that he “hit everything in the stage”. In contrasting circumstances, his M-Sport team-mate Greensmith was baffled by how he picked up a right front puncture that cost him 1m15s, which dropped the Brit from fifth to eighth overall.

Low cloud had rolled in for Stage 5 and it became thicker for Stage 6, limiting visibility, but it failed to halt Rovanpera’s charge at the front.

The Toyota driver delivered a blistering drive to claim his fifth stage win of the event to move more than minute clear of the chasing pack.

Tanak headed that group behind as he moved back to second overall by pumping in a time 7.6s shy of Rovanpera, but crucially 4.8s faster than team-mate Neuville as the battle for the podium spots raged. Neuville was however hampered by a fogged up windscreen claiming he drove “seven or eight kilometres without any visibility.”

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Neuville wasn’t the only Hyundai driver battling against the conditions as Solberg caught a wet patch and aquaplaned off the road, inflicting damage to the front right of his i20 N. Luckily, he was able to reach the stage end with the car intact.

Greensmith also survived a scare in the stage where he was caught out by mud that sent him sliding off the road for the second time today.

Crews were greeted with a damp but drying road for the penultimate test of the day which was also claimed by Rovanpera.

The Finn was however pushed by Neuville, who was 1.3s slower than the rally leader but his effort was enough to reclaim second overall after Tanak lost speed in the final split due to a puncture.

Neuville ended the day on a positive note after winning the final stage, edging Rovanpera by 2.8s. with a fine drive in challenging conditions.

The muddy roads provided plenty of drama as Greensmith and Katsuta both suffered front left punctures, costing them almost half a minute.

Rally Croatia continues on Saturday as crews tackle another eight stages.

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WRC Croatia: Neuville receives time penalty denting podium hopes
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