Elfyn Evans stormed to victory at Rally Croatia on Sunday afternoon, moving the Toyota Gazoo Racing driver to the top of the FIA World Rally Championship standings in the process.
An error from Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville on Saturday morning had propelled the Welshman to first overall. After that, he distanced himself from M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 driver Ott Tanak to win by 27.0s in his GR Yaris Rally1.
The triumph, his first since Rally Finland in the fall of 2021 and the first of his career on an all-asphalt WRC round, elevated Evans from fifth to first in the drivers’ championship standings. After round four of 13, he leads Toyota teammate Sebastien Ogier by three points, with Tanak just one point further back in third.
After taking the win, Evans reflected on the loss of his friend and rival, Ireland’s Craig Breen, who was killed testing his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 in a pre-Rally Croatia test.
“Obviously we’ve been working towards this for a long time, but it all feels so insignificant at the moment — that’s the bottom line,” said Evans. “After the focus of the weekend, we’re all back to missing our friend now. Straightaway after coming across the finish line, that’s all we can think about. We promised Craig’s family we would enjoy the weekend, and we’ve done that. We’re all thinking of them right now.”
Evans’ Toyota Gazoo Racing team preserved its unbeaten Rally Croatia record, making it three wins in three events, while also increasing its WRC manufacturers’ championship lead over Hyundai Motorsport to 29 points.
The 2023 WRC season’s first all-asphalt rally delivered tremendous action, and Tanak looked set to become a real threat to Evans as he set a furious pace early on Saturday afternoon. However, a transmission issue toward the end of the penultimate leg obstructed the Estonian’s charge and he cruised to Sunday’s finish 31.6s clear of Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi.
Lappi lacked confidence on some of the dirtier sections of road, but consistency rewarded him with his first podium for Hyundai — a welcome boost after crashing out from the lead in the previous round in Mexico.
Behind Lappi were a trio of Toyotas headed by defending WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera, 19.7s in arrears. The Finn had fallen outside of the overall top 10 after changing a wheel in Friday’s second stage, but hauled himself back up the leaderboard with an impressive recovery drive. He passed Ogier during Sunday’s final morning to claim fourth overall, edging his teammate by just 9.7s.
Ogier, who led the points before this rally, despite choosing to run only a limited WRC campaign this season, was left to rue what could have been. Although he trailed winner Evans by 1min28.0s at the finish, he’d also stopped to change a wheel while leading on Friday and received further blows in the form of time penalties. In total, the eight-time champ’s time loss amounted to roughly two-and-a-half minutes, ending his chances of making it three wins from his three 2023 starts so far.
Takamoto Katsuta made it four Toyotas in the top six, ahead of seventh-placed Pierre-Louis Loubet, who nursed his Puma to the finish with bent steering.
Completing the runners in the WRC’s headlining hybrid Rally1 class, Thierry Neuville, who’d led after Friday, then crashed out on Saturday, restarted with the aim of grabbing maximum bonus points on the rally-closing Wolf Power Stage — a mission the Belgian duly accomplished after gambling on carrying no spare tires in his Hyundai i20 N to save weight.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Yohan Rossel secured his second victory in as many 2023 starts, having led the class from Friday’s opening stage.
The Frenchman took control from the get-go and never faltered in his Citroen C3. He did, however, come under some pressure from Skoda Fabia RS driver Nikolay Gryazin, whose Saturday afternoon charge ate into his lead. The pair entered Sunday’s four-stage finale just 11.5s apart, but Rossel, who also won WRC2 at the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally, delivered a faultless drive to keep his rival 16.1s behind at the finish.
Oliver Solberg finished third on the road in his Skoda, but was not registered for WRC2 points in Croatia (WRC2 drivers nominate seven rounds to secure championship points). That left Emil Lindholm to complete the podium in his Fabia after fighting back from a broken transmission linkage on Friday. The Finn was a hefty 1m11.4sec adrift of the front-running pair, although he did have 51.0s in hand over fourth-placed Adrien Fourmaux’s M-Sport Ford Fiesta.
Next event for the WRC is Rally Portugal, May 11-14. Running over fast and technical gravel roads inland from Porto, it’s one of the oldest and most popular rounds in the championship. Reigning WRC champ Kalle Rovanpera was last year’s winner, and will be looking to take his title defense up a gear with a repeat this time around.
WRC Rally Croatia, final positions after Day Three, SS20
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 2h50m54.3s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +27.0s
3 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +58.6s
4 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m18.3s
5 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m28.0s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnson (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m22.5s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicola Gilsoul (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +4m22.6s
8 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2 winner) +7m51.3s
9 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +8m07.4s
10 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Skoda Fabia RS) +9m16.7s
WRC Drivers’ Championship after 4 rounds
1 Evans 69 points
2 Ogier 66
3 Tanak 65
4 Rovanpera 64
5 Neuville 53
WRC Manufacturers’ Championship after 4 rounds
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 154 points
2 Hyundai Motorsport 126
3 M-Sport Ford 108
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