Thierry Neuville leads Croatia Rally after the opening day from Elfyn Evans despite only winning one stage. Toyota drivers Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä hit trouble with punctures.
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 with a mixed combination of hard and soft compound Pirelli tyres, which proved to be the best 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.
WRC2 leader Yohan Rossel was ninth and held a sizeable 29.9sec advantage over Nikolay Gryazin, second in the category.
Saturday’s second leg follows a similar format with four stages, driven morning and afternoon, totalling 116.60km.
Photo, text: Red Bull Content Pool