Kalle Rovanpera snatched an extraordinary Croatia Rally victory on Sunday afternoon as a downpour turned round three of the FIA World Rally Championship on its head in the final miles.
The 21-year-old Finn led from the start of the three-day, all-asphalt rally in the hills around Zagreb in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, only for a storm in the penultimate special stage to wipe out his hard-earned advantage.
A resurgent Ott Tanak, whose gamble on softer Pirelli tires gave his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 a performance edge on the soaked roads, grabbed a 1.4s lead.
The pendulum swung back toward Rovanpera as drier roads in the closing Wolf Power Stage offered hope, but the odds remained firmly in Tanak’s favor as mud and dirt littered the final 8.76-mile test.
Rovanpera, the winner of February’s Rally Sweden, threw caution to the wind and remarkably overturned the deficit to claim back-to-back WRC victories by 4.3s. His Croatian win extended his points lead to 29 after three rounds of the 13-event season.
The Toyota driver had dominated the opening day of the event and was almost 90s clear until falling into Tanak’s clutches following a puncture on Saturday morning. He rebuilt his lead to a half minute, until the late deluge set up a breathtaking finale.
“I was sure we could not be so fast with these tires, but it’s amazing,” said Rovanpera. “We pushed really hard and I think we deserve it this weekend. For sure, it was the toughest win of my career.”
It was a disappointing outcome for Tanak, whose WRC win drought dates back to February 2021.
“I didn’t take any risks, but Kalle obviously did a good drive,” said the Estonian. “We were fighting for the win, but only because of clever decisions and tire choices.”
Tanak finished 2m16.7s clear of Hyundai teammate Thierry Neuville. The Belgian overhauled M-Sport Ford driver Craig Breen on the final morning to claim the final podium spot, despite a torrid weekend.
He and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe were on the point of collapse after pushing their car for a half-mile into service on Friday after stopping with alternator problems (see video, above). Time penalties and speeding fines knocked them further back, and they almost gave up a podium within sight of the finish after hitting a bank and coming close to rolling.
Breen survived an overshoot and a spin to take fourth in his Puma Rally1. The Irishman fended off a closing Elfyn Evans, whose fifth place marked a first points finish of the year for the GR Yaris driver. Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta was a distant sixth in another Yaris.
The tricky Croatian asphalt, along with frequent heavy rain and fog, proved highly attritional and the remainder of the leaderboard was filled by drivers from the WRC2 class, the second tier of international rallying.
Yohan Rossel earned his first WRC2 victory and secured seventh overall. The Frenchman had led from start to finish in his PH Sport Citroen, putting on a masterclass in the changing conditions. In the end it was Poland’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz taking second place in his Skoda Fabia Evo, albeit more than a minute behind.
The all-American crew of Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani finished 11th in WRC2 with their Sainteloc Citroen C3, 10m22.6s off Rossel’s winning time, but picking up more priceless experience in their rally journey.
Next up, the WRC switches to gravel for the first time in 2022 at Rally Portugal, May 19-22.
WRC Croatia Rally, final positions after Day Three, SS20
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h48m21.5s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +4.3s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m21.0s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +3m07.3s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +3m46.0s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +8m08.5s
7 Yohan Rossel/Valentin Sarreaud (Citroen C3 – WRC2 winner) +10m01.0s
8 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Skoda Fabia Evo) +11m01.2s
9 Emil Lindholm/Reeta Hamalainen (Skoda Fabia Evo) +11m11.9s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia Evo) +11m48.5s
WRC Drivers’ Championship after 3 rounds
1 Rovanpera 76 points
2 Neuville 47
3 Breen 30
4 Sebastien Loeb 27
5 Tanak 27
WRC Manufacturers’ Championship after 3 rounds
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 126 points
2 Hyundai Motorsport 84
3 M-Sport Ford 80
4 TGR Next Generation 30
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