Croatia: the country that sank England in a World Cup semifinal. A popular holiday destination too. No matter what your first thought of this nation is, rallying probably isn’t at the front of the queue.
It can be hard for a new territory to make an impact in the World Rally Championship – particularly if, like Croatia, it doesn’t have a revered rallying heritage, a local driver at the front of the field or seemingly even a clear defining characteristic that makes the event truly unique against the others.
Consider other recent additions to the WRC. Estonia – the lightning-fast roads and a World Rally champion in Ott Tänak. Ypres – the unique stages, legendary culture and a superstar in Thierry Neuville. The return of Safari Rally Kenya – need we say more?
Without any of these elements, the comparative hype and fever for Rally Croatia was muted at best. The fact that it was parachuted into the calendar without an FIA candidate event running the year before didn’t help the rally’s cause either.
But think back to Estonia’s 2020 debut, Ypres’ in 2021 and the first new-look Safari last year. Were any of those events as thrilling as Rally Croatia? Safari runs it closest, but the short and simple answer is no, they weren’t.
Was that a coincidence? This week’s event will ultimately give us that answer. But there’s more than a fair chance we’ll be served up with another corker.
Sébastien Ogier’s dramatic final day where he bizarrely crashed with a road user on the way to that leg’s first stage set up an absolutely thrilling climax to last year’s rally. The fact Ogier even made it to that test – via a misconstrued altercation with the police – was news.
And then to build the narrative, he lost his rally lead only to win it back again on the powerstage when Elfyn Evans made a mistake at the final corner. You could not write a better script for a rally finish if you tried.
But clearly, this unfortunate and unbelievable incident on the final morning could have happened anywhere – it wasn’t an indication of Rally Croatia’s quality. It’ easy to forget that the rally was finely poised – and entertaining – before that.
At no point over the weekend were the leading trio of Ogier, Evans and Thierry Neuville split by more than 20 seconds. All three led the rally at various stages, and championship leader Kalle Rovanperä threw his Toyota off the road on the very first stage.
This was no European gravel round where the field remained close on day one but, with road conditions equal, somebody streaked clear on day two to cruise home on Sunday. The Croatian result always hung in the balance.
It was a new event in 2021 meaning no driver had experience of the terrain, which potentially helped spice up the action. But even if they had prior knowledge, they would’ve been caught out. The grip levels on offer on this asphalt rally are surprisingly low.
And remember that point about the rally not having a unique characteristic? That’s actually precisely what makes it such a compelling challenge. If Ypres is a musical artist’s album, Croatia is more like a Now That’s What I Call Music CD – the greatest hits of other asphalt rallies all thrown into one.
“It’s nice, you don’t get bored with anything this weekend,” said Ogier ahead of last year’s event.
“You can please everybody: if you like the fast, if you like the twisty and in the end to win the event you will need to be competitive everywhere.
“The truth is it’s very hard to really give a characteristic on this rally because it’s very diverse. Like you find a bit of everything in there and I think the challenge looks pretty exciting, honestly.
“Challenging conditions, yes most probably, but that’s also what rallying is about.”
Adrien Fourmaux described it as like “five rallies in one” as drivers found comparison with Italy, Bulgaria, Ireland, Germany, Rally France Alsace, and even the Monte Carlo Rally. It’s little wonder drivers found it tricky.
Heading back 12 months later, the world’s best (Rovanperä aside) now have a feeling of what the roads are like to drive. They have a base layer of knowledge, an expectation, an idea of what they’ll face.
Ultimately we don’t know if that’ll affect the way this year’s Rally Croatia will pan out, but experience doesn’t stop there being drama on the Monte every year, does it?
Croatia absolutely delivered beyond expectation last year. The rally faces a tougher job to do that again this time around given the bar has been raised, but this event really does have a modern classic feeling about it.
And if nothing else, context is on its side. After eight long weeks without the WRC, we’re all just longing for a rally again.