Elfyn Evans is closing in on his first FIA World Rally Championship victory since the fall of 2021 after seizing the Rally Croatia lead during Saturday’s penultimate leg.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver (above) assumed control of the challenging asphalt event early in the day when Thierry Neuville, who had led by 5.7s on Friday evening, crashed into retirement on the second stage.
Neuville’s Hyundai i20 N Rally1 stepped out of line and collided with a concrete block, which caused severe damage to the car’s rear suspension. With the Belgian going no further, that handed Evans’ GR Yaris Rally1 a healthy lead of 22.6s at Saturday’s halfway point.
But the dynamic changed when M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tanak cranked up the heat after the mid-leg service in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and slashed Welshman Evans’ buffer by almost half with just two of the day’s stages remaining. However, the Estonian was impeded by a technical fault which cost valuable time late in the day and he ended the leg 25.4s off the lead.
A victory for Evans, should he succeed in keeping Tanak’s Puma Rally 1 at bay, would be his first since the 2021 Rally Finland, more than 18 months ago.
“If Ott had problems, I wouldn’t wish that on him,” the Welshman said after the day’s final stage. “It’s not nice to exploit a gap like that, but OK, there’s still a long way to go.”
Esapekka Lappi brought his Hyundai to the overnight halt in third overall, despite lacking confidence in some of the sections where corner cutting from the earlier cars had thrown gravel onto the asphalt. A half spin in the afternoon’s first stage didn’t help matters, although the Finn pressed harder in the afternoon and trailed Tanak by just a half minute at close of day.
Eight-time WRC champ Sebastien Ogier started Saturday on the back foot, having been handed a one-minute time penalty for a safety breach — an incorrectly fastened safety harness on Friday’s second stage. The Frenchman, who is running only selected events in 2023, was then lumbered with a further 10-second penalty after a technical issue on the road section caused him to make his own repairs and check in late to the first stage.
But the GR Yaris driver, winner here in 2021, climbed from seventh to fourth overall after taking three fastest stage times. Behind him were Toyota teammates Kalle Rovanpera and Takamoto Katsuta, both of whom leapfrogged M-Sport Ford’s Pierre-Louis Loubet as he struggled to find traction on hard compound tires.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, overnight leader Yohan Rossel saw his buffer reduced by almost two-thirds as a charging Nikolay Gryazin turned up the heat.
Rossel is aiming for back-to-back Croatia WRC2 victories in his Citroen C3, but struggled to come up with a response to the furious pace set by Gryazin throughout Saturday’s second leg.
Having started the day with a half-minute lead, Rossel was on the receiving end of several Gryazin blows as the Skoda Fabia RS driver stormed to fastest WRC2 times on four of the day’s eight stages.
“The conditions are not the same as yesterday,” said Rossel, who enters Sunday’s final leg a mere 11.5s ahead of Gryazin. “It’s quite similar to a gravel rally! The feeling is quite good when the road is completely dry, but when we have a lot of mud and gravel [from the cuts], it’s impossible to drive for me. But the rally is not finished — we will see tomorrow.”
Sunday’s final leg north of Zagreb features the widest roads of the weekend. The opening 8.17-mile Trakoscan-Vrbno stage starts close to a 13th-century lakeside castle amid stunning scenery and is followed by the 8.76-mile Zagorska Sela-Kumrovec test. Both are driven twice, taking the day’s total to 33.85 competitive miles, with the second run through Zagorska Sela-Kumrovec as the rally-closing, points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
WRC Rally Croatia, leading positions after Day Two, SS16
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h20m05.7s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +25.4s
3 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +55.4s
4 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m49.4s
5 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m51.4s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m25.9s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicola Gilsoul (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2m32.1s
8 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +6m40.2s
9 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +6m51.7s
10 Emil Lindholm/Rita Hamalainen (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +8m02.4s
Check out WRC.com, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ All Live subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.