Kalle Rovanpera demolished his opponents in Friday’s treacherous opening leg of the FIA World Rally Championship’s Croatia Rally to build a convincing lead of more than a minute.
Despite rain, mud and mist in the hills west of capital Zagreb, the 21-year-old Finn won six of the eight asphalt speed tests in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 to head a resilient Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai by 1m04s.
WRC points leader Rovanpera thrived in the tricky conditions. He won three of the morning’s four special stages to lead by 47.5s at the service halt and stretched it during an equally dominant afternoon.
Having missed valuable experience when he crashed out early in the opening special stage of Croatia’s WRC debut 12 months ago, the Toyota driver expected to be at a disadvantage. But first in the start order helped, as conditions progressively worsened as each car dragged mud onto the road.
“It was probably one of my best days in a rally car,” said Rovanpera. “It’s always nice to have a lead, but it’s also difficult to have a big lead like this. Tomorrow is a long day, so I still need to drive fast to keep concentrated.”
Neuville endured a topsy-turvy day. The Belgian completed the opening quartet of tests only 12.5s adrift of Rovanpera, but a broken alternator belt on his Hyundai i20 N Rally1’s engine twice stopped the car on the way to service.
Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe pushed the car the final half mile. The exhausted pair fell to the floor as they arrived four minutes late, and the ensuing 40s penalty demoted them to fourth.
But a spirited afternoon, including fastest time in the eighth and final stage, propelled them back to second overall. They ended the day with a 19.3s margin over Hyundai teammate Ott Tanak. The Estonian’s low start position hindered him, along with a puncture on the penultimate stage, but he was relatively content with third.
Despite overshooting a corner and narrowly missing a water hydrant, M-Sport Ford’s Craig Breen was fourth on his first rally aboard a Ford Puma Rally1 in the wet. The Irishman will start Saturday just 11.9s behind Tanak.
Oliver Solberg was delayed by a spin and was fortunate to survive an impact in a water-filled corner on the way to fifth in his i20 N. He was more than a minute adrift of Breen, but 10.6s clear of Toyota’s Elfyn Evans, who denied teammate Rovanpera a clean sweep of morning stage wins.
That was the Welshman’s only joy, as two punctures on his GR Yaris cost valuable time on a rally where he needs a strong finish after a disappointing start in the season’s opening two events.
In worse trouble was the third factory Toyota driver, Esapekka Lappi, who retired his GR Yaris in the first stage after clipping a boulder and wrecking the right-front corner.
Aside from Breen’s efforts, it was a disappointing day for M-Sport Ford. Adrien Fourmaux went out after sliding his Puma through a hedge into a roadside garden, while both Pierre-Louis Loubet and Gus Greensmith exited when three punctures left them with no more usuable tires onboard.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Yohan Rossel’s PH Sport Citroen C3 has a healthy 40.2s lead over second-placed Nikolay Gryazin’s Skoda Fabia Evo. The all-American crew of Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani are 13th in class in their Sainteloc Citroen C3, 5m45.0s down on leader Rossel.
Saturday’s second leg follows a similar format to the opening day. Four stages are driven morning and afternoon in the same territory, except for the penultimate test of each loop, which heads further west towards the Adriatic coast city of Rijeka. The eight special stages cover 72.69 competitive miles.
WRC Croatia Rally, leading positions after Day One, SS8
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h15m35.5s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m04.0s
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m23.3s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m35.2s
5 Petter Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m38.5s
6 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m49.1s
7 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +3m28.0s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +3m39.6s
9 Yohan Rossel/Valentin Sarreaud (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +5m12.6s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia Evo) +5m48.9s
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