WRC Rally Croatia: Neuville leads from Ogier after Rovanpera crashes

Thierry Neuville holds a slender overnight lead from Sebastien Ogier after the first day of Rally Croatia’s debut on the World Rally Championship calendar which covered a marathon eight stages

WRC Rally Croatia: Neuville leads from Ogier after Rovanpera crashes

The stages brought huge variations in the quality of the surface from one corner to the next, the WRC’s first all-asphalt rally since Germany 2019, with crews also confronting jumps plus tight and technical sections, while mud and gravel dragged out of the verges also put a premium on road position.

With the Day 1 starting order decided by championship position, this handed Toyota’s 20-year-old star Kalle Rovanpera a distinct advantage as he headed into the opening stage.

But the WRC’s youngest-ever points leader endured a nightmare opening stage as at an acute right-hander less than a mile from the end of the stage he rolled out of the rally.

Rovanpera’s demise handed the honour of leading the field to Neuville, who was quick to capitalise.

The Belgian has yet to challenge for victory in 2021 after ditching his long-time co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul on the eve of Rallye Monte-Carlo.

In the opening rounds of the season, Neuville had to establish a new rapport with current incumbent Martijn Wydaeghe, but the pairing appears more assured in Croatia after Wydaeghe, a natural Flemish speaker, worked hard between rallies to get his French pace notes up to scratch.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

Neuville duly won three of the four stages in the morning loop; only failing to capitalise on Stage 3 when Britain’s Elfyn Evans recorded the first fastest time of the day for Toyota.

Evans held second place at the end of the first loop, 7.3 seconds behind Neuville and 5s in front of his team-mate, seven-time WRC champion Sebastien Ogier, in third.

The defending champion narrowly avoided coming off at the same corner as Rovanpera and was lucky to escape with just a puncture, costing him only a couple of seconds over the short distance to the stage end.

Some speed was indubitably found on the afternoon run through the loop, with Ogier winning three of the four stages and passing Evans for second place in the process.

Not only was Ogier well and truly back in the lead battle as a result, but also he recorded his 600th WRC career stage win on Stage 7.

Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota Yaris WRC

Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota Yaris WRC

Photo by: Toyota Racing

A big gap opened up between the top three and the rest of the field on the morning loop, headed by 2019 WRC champion Ott Tanak in his Hyundai.

The Estonian made an unconventional tyre selection, opting for hard compound rubber all round, and dropped 25s as he struggled to get comfortable on the tricky Croatian surface.

The third Hyundai of Craig Breen was also considerably down on pace, ending the day 22.9s behind Tanak, while a spirited battle between the M-Sport Fiestas of Britain’s Gus Greensmith and WRC debutant Adrien Fourmaux ended with the Frenchman 7s ahead on the first day.

In WRC2, defending champion Mads Ostberg made his first appearance of the season for Citroen, having been a member of the TV punditry team for the opening two rounds, and ended day one with a slender advantage over the VW Polo of Russia’s Nikolay Gryazin, with championship leader Andreas Mikkelsen crashing out and the M-Sport entry of Teemu Suninen almost 45s adrift.

Current WRC3 points leader Yoann Rossel kept Citroen at the top of the junior Rally2 category, 2.2s clear of the Skoda of Polish driver Kajetan Kajetanowicz while Britain’s 2019 European champion, Chris Ingram, holds sixth on his first appearance at world championship level.

The action continues tomorrow with another eight-stage marathon, and concludes on Sunday with four final stages, including the bonus points-paying powerstage.

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