The rain has descended on to Friday’s Croatia Rally stages, but the precipitation didn’t affect Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä who went fastest on the opening test of the rally.
The damp conditions made the Mali Lipovec – Grdanjci stage tough to navigate, and not many drivers emerged unscathed, but Rovanperä – who was first on the road – managed to run clear in a time of 12m44.6s, ending up just over four seconds clear of Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville in second.
But while a Toyota leads the rally, it’s also the first team to suffer a retirement, after Esapekka Lappi failed to make it through the 11.93-mile test.
Lappi clipped a big rock 9.9km into the stage and severely damaged his front-right suspension, preventing him from being able to continue.
Neuville was Rovanperä’s closest challenger, but he didn’t get through the stage without issue. He was up on the points leader’s time through the opening split, but he suffered from vibrations through the stage after mud got wedged in his car following a trip through a ditch.
“Horrible stage! I immediately went into the ditch after three corners because the grip was low,” said Neuville. “I had a lot of vibrating from the wheel with the mud stuck inside. I tried to be relaxed and just get to the end because it’s very tricky in there.”
M-Sport’s Craig Breen was relatively happy with his opening stage of the rally, admitting he was having to adapt to driving with windscreen wipers in operation for the first time, but his time was good enough for third, while Hyundai’s Ott Tänak was 3.2s further back in fourth.
Gus Greensmith had the save of the stage, going off the road early on with a lot of understeer.
He went up a bank and narrowly avoided a tree, but managed to continue, albeit without his front splitter. Despite the off, he was still fifth fastest and 25.5s down on the leading time.
His M-Sport team-mate Adrien Fourmaux was sixth, while Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg was seventh, despite having a spin.
“I had a spin and I lost a lot of time,” said Solberg. “I had to stop and turn around. It’s very tricky – it’s not the easiest to start with, but it’s good fun anyway.
“We just need to be consistent and work a little bit.”
Takamoto Katsuta was eighth fastest, and Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans’ start to the rally went even worse as he picked up a puncture. He ended up down in 15th, 1m20s down on Rovanperä, while M-Sport’s new signing Pierre-Louis Loubet was 19th on his return to rallying’s top level, having suffered a double puncture.
Their issues meant that WRC2 drivers Yohan Rossel and Chris Ingram rounded out the top 10.
1 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) 12m44.6s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +4.1s
3 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +13.0s
4 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +16.2s
5 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +25.5s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +35.4s
7 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai) +44.9s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +51.6s
9 Yohan Rossel/Valentin Sarreaud (Citroën) +1m01.0s
10 Chris Ingram/Craig Drew (Škoda) +1m09.7s