Evans and Neuville tied for Croatia lead, Ogier closes in

The pair traded rally lead during the afternoon before tying, with Ogier now just 6.6s back


Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville are locked in an extremely close battle for Rally Croatia victory, finishing dead level after Friday’s eight stages were run.

In the morning, World Rally Championship points leader Neuville had initially pulled away but on stage six Neuville suffered a puncture, dropping exactly 10s which reduced the lead gap over Evans to a mere 0.1s.

Evans then took the lead on Jaškovo, Friday’s penultimate test, only for Neuville to strike back on Krašić, the longest stage of the rally, clawing 1.6s back to finish the day with a dead heat.

Neuville’s earlier puncture had been caused by an impact with a stone on the edge of the road – and that small mistake continued to play on his mind later in the day.

“I’m really disappointed because it’s something that could have been avoided but it is what it is,” he said after Jaškovo. “I was struggling to find motivation after a long road section and the time lost in the previous stage.”


Neuville had been in command before hitting a rock in the afternoon

That dead heat at the top of the leaderboard leaves an unusual scenario for tomorrow’s road order. Per article 64.3 of the WRC sporting regulations, a dead heat is decided by whoever was faster on the first special stage of a rally. Neuville won the rally-opening test on Friday morning but as road order is reversed on Saturday, it means he starts behind Evans on the road.

Behind the lead pair, Sébastien Ogier demolished the field on the final stage of the day, winning stage eight by a whopping 9.2s to launch himself into contention for victory.

Despite starting sixth on the road and thus dealing with more detritus dragged onto the road that makes grip less predictable, Ogier has spent all day running in third place; closing the gap to the lead pair to only 6.6s puts him in a great position to challenge for victory tomorrow.

“It’s been a tough day for us with the road position, we expected that,” said Ogier. “So being able to close the gap that much tonight is really positive.”

Ott Tänak was finally able to break away from Adrien Fourmaux in the battle for fourth place on Friday afternoon, with some setup tweaks achieving a better balance aboard his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 and providing a more consistent feel.

“On the last three stages we had consistent runs,” said Tänak. “Difficult to really push, no confidence in the balance but at least it’s been more consistent. Not great but better than the morning.”


Fourmaux was happy with his driving, but is falling back from Tänak

Takamoto Katsuta was left bemused by his pace on Friday’s final stage. After struggling for pace all day he was finally in the mix on Krašić, setting the fourth-fastest time. But overall it had been a disappointing day for the third GR Yaris Rally1; he ended it in sixth place, 45.1s behind Fourmaux.

“I don’t know why the time was quite OK,” he admitted. “I also don’t know why I was so slow on the other stages. Very strange.”

Hyundai’s third car was even further off the pace; Andreas Mikkelsen struggled his way through to end Friday 2m37.8s off his team-mate Neuville. Grégoire Munster remains eighth in the second Ford Puma Rally1, 29.5s adrift of Mikkelsen.

Nikolay Gryazin put in a dominant performance to lead the WRC2 class by 31.1s, winning five of Friday’s eight stages.

That was despite picking up a front-left puncture on the Jaškovo, putting him millimetres away from going off the road after the very same jump that had caught out his Citroën team-mate Yohan Rossel in the morning.


Gryazin's Citroën has been in dominant form

Any hopes Rossel may have had of keeping Gryazin within arm’s reach were blown out of the water on the day’s last stage, which Gryazin won by 10.1s. Despite defeating his team-mate in a straight fight on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally, Rossel had no answer to Gryazin’s pace: “I am too cautious and the feeling is not good on the soft tire, I don’t know why,” he said.

Two stage wins in the afternoon for Gus Greensmith has helped him contend for second place against Rossel, closing the gap for second place to 5.3s – but it’s a battle for position only, as the lead Škoda Fabia RS driver isn’t registered for points in Croatia.

Sami Pajari, another driver not registered for WRC2 points, is in a comfortable fourth place, aided by a puncture for Pepe López in fifth.

One of the day’s strangest moments came courtesy of Pajari, as he ran wide and demolished an advertising arch on stage six. He continued with only minor cosmetic damage to end Friday a minute off the lead.

“Croatia is somehow always challenging,” said Pajari with a wry smile.

López’s end-of-day puncture, his second of Friday, now leaves him a minute adrift of Pajari – and more crucially for his WRC2 title aspirations, two minutes off the lead. It was “a day to forget” for the three-time Spanish superchampionship winner.

Rain is forecast for Saturday with eight stages covering 67.6 miles to the crews to traverse.