Neuville leads WRC Croatia Rally 3-way fight after Saturday twists

Thierry Neuville (above) holds the slightest of WRC Croatia Rally leads after Saturday’s enthralling, flat-out penultimate leg ended with Hyundai’s asphalt ace besting Toyota’s Elfyn Evans by just 4.9s, with Sebastien Ogier only 6.7s further back. 

After a day of multiple twists and turns – literally and metaphorically – Belgian Neuville was ecstatic to head to the overnight halt in his i20 N Rally1 holding that sub-five-second lead and provisionally scoring 18 points to boost his FIA World Rally Championship title lead over GR Yaris Rally1 driver Evans. Eight-time champ Ogier made it two Toyotas inside the top three, and is still very much in contention for his 59th career WRC win.

The morning loop of four stages swung in Neuville’s favor thanks to his efforts in preserving his four soft-compound Pirelli P Zero tires. Evans, who’d ended Friday tied with the Belgian on overall time, conceded 4.7s to Neuville across the morning’s tests as he struggled to juggle only three softs, one hard and two wet-weather tires in the absence of forecasted rain.

Toyota’s Elfyn Evans struggled with his tire choices in Saturday’s morning loop, but is still within 4.9s of rally leader Thierry Neuville. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

All three Toyota Gazoo Racing crews opted to carry four soft and two wet-weather tires for the repeated afternoon loop, while Neuville chose a more diverse package comprising two hards, two softs and two wets.

Although Toyota’s strategy initially paid off when Evans reclaimed the lead after beating Neuville by 6.7s in the light drizzle of the afternoon’s opening test, 9.77-mile Smerovisce-Grdanjcl 2, the Hyundai man responded by winning the final three all-asphalt stages in predominantly dry conditions to go back in front.

Under the new-for-2024 WRC points system, Neuville’s Saturday finish will earn him those 18 points, providing he completes Super Sunday’s final four stages. Evans will receive 15, while Ogier, who’s running only a limited WRC schedule this season, will bank 13.

“It’s not a big lead, but we had a great day,” said Neuville. “Despite a not perfect tire choice this afternoon we were capable of defending our lead. It wasn’t easy when the weather wasn’t very easy to judge. Now we need to continue attacking and have a good tire choice [on Sunday].”

Ott Tanak ended Saturday still in fourth overall, more than a minute further back in the second factory Hyundai. The Estonian was lucky to escape with nothing more than slightly a bent rear wheel when he ran wide on a left-hander and clipped a curb early in the leg.

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak holds fourth, a minute out of the lead battle. Running wide and damaging a wheel didn’t help his cause. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Tanak had 19.9s in hand over Adrien Fourmaux’s fifth-placed M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1. The Frenchman was again impressive in his long-shot quest for a third consecutive WRC podium, taking the fastest time on the Smerovisce-Grdanjci stage to stretch his advantage over Toyota’s third entry, Takamoto Katsuta.

Seventh-placed Andreas Mikkelsen suffered another time-consuming overshoot, but felt increasingly comfortable on asphalt aboard the third of the factory Hyundais, while Gregoire Munster gained more valuable experience in his Puma to end the day eighth overall.

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Nikolay Gryazin maintains a comfortable 39.5s lead over DG Sport Competition teammate Yohan Rossel. Similar to Friday’s opening leg, the Citroen C3 duo were a notch above the competition, now led by Finn Sami Pajari, albeit 26.3s behind Rossel in the final class podium spot.

Pajari’s climb up the order comes at the expense of Spain’s Pepe Lopez, the Skoda Fabia RS driver dropping time to lose his podium place and sit fifth in the WRC2 standings behind Gus Greensmith’s similar machine.

Nikolay Gryazin maintained his WRC2 lead, heading a Citroen C3 1-2 over teammate Yohan Rossel. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Four more all-asphalt stages comprise Sunday’s finale, with up to 12 championship points still up for grabs in the overall battle. Two tests are each tackled twice for a total of 34.04 competitive miles before the finish in Croatian capital Zagreb.    

WRC Croatia Rally, positions after Leg Two, SS16
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 2h09m46.0s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +4.9s
3 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +11.6s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m15.5s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1) +1m35.4s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m14.2s 
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +4m00.8s
8 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +4m56.3s
9 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +7m41.4s
10 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +8m20.9s  

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Story originally appeared on Racer