Elfyn Evans has stormed to victory on Croatia Rally to take his first win since Rally Finland 2021.
Heading into the final stage he and Ott Tänak were separated by 28.1s but although the M-Sport driver was faster on the powerstage, it was nowhere near enough to challenge Evans for the overall win.
It meant that Evans could make it to the finish with little pressure on his shoulders, a victory he dedicated to the late Craig Breen.
“It feels so insignificant now, that’s the bottom line,” he said.
“We’ve been working to this for a long time but it’s surprising how little it means just at the moment.
“Back to missing our friend after the real focus of the weekend. Straightaway when you come across the finish line that’s all you can think about.
“We promised the [Breen] family we’d enjoy the weekend, we’ve done that. I’m sure they were following us, but we’re definitely thinking of you.”
Esapekka Lappi had a quiet weekend where he rounded out the top-three. He wasn’t overly comfortable in the i20 N Rally1 during the three days but was visibly emotional at the stage end after what has been an incredibly tough period for the Hyundai team.
“I don’t know where to start to be honest. Big thanks to the team – I am sure it was not easy to come here for most of us,” he said.
“It’s been really tough but we kept our heads together and with a smart drive we managed to be on the podium, which is very important for me and the team.”
The battle for fourth between Kalle Rovanperä and Sébastien Ogier ended with the current world champion coming out on top.
Rovanperä ended the weekend 9.7s ahead after being forced into a recovery drive following a puncture on Friday morning.
But the powerstage wasn’t an easy one for Ogier, who said his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 was “undriveable”.
“It was a very difficult powerstage. The car was undriveable for me and I had a massive understeer,” he explained.
“I am glad I finished it! We had the pace for much better this weekend, but it was just not our weekend.”
Takamoto Katsuta came home in sixth place after a steady drive all weekend long and finished 2m00.01s ahead of Pierre-Louis Loubet.
For Loubet it was a tough final loop who nursed some issues with his Ford Puma Rally1 all the way to the end.
“I think we can take some positives about this rally,” he said.
“Unfortunately today we had some problem with the engine and after that I hit something with the steering. I think we just need some more consistency and the pace can be there sometimes.”
Thierry Neuville spent his Sunday focusing on the powerstage, with fighting for position out of the question.
And that plan worked, with him winning the powerstage by nine tenths of a second. And at the end, he paid an emotional tribute to Breen.
“I don’t know what to say. I am so disappointed for the team and for us after everything that happened,” he admitted.
“It’s a tough moment, you know. We really wanted that victory, we wanted to make Craig proud, but we missed the opportunity.
“We gave it everything in here. This one was for Craig, so hopefully it’s enough.”
As the weekend unfolded it was Ogier who held the cards following the first stage on Friday morning, besting Neuville by 2.6s.
But no sooner had the Toyota driver settled into the lead, he was thrust down the order thanks to a puncture on SS2.
The issue remarkably only lost him around 1m30s, meaning there was still plenty of time to regroup and push back towards the front.
But come the end of Friday – following a day driving which elevated him to fifth and 50.3s off the car ahead of Lappi – that progress was unraveled as he was slapped with a one-minute penalty on the evening of day one for a seatbelt infringement when he fixed the puncture earlier on.
That spiraled him back down the order to seventh and just 5.2s ahead of Rovanperä – who also suffered a puncture on the same stage as Ogier.
He and his team-mate engaged in a chase back up the field, with the pair eventually passing both Katsuta and Loubet before continuing their fight over what became fourth position.
Ogier’s Friday morning trouble elevated Neuville into the top spot, and the Hyundai driver was under pressure from the off as Evans was vying for the lead behind him.
The gap between the two ebbed and flowed as Friday progressed, with it eventually settling at 5.7s at the close of play on day one.
It looked set to be an intriguing battle, but instead it was cut short on Saturday morning when Neuville crashed out on the first pass of Ravna Gora – Skrad, putting his hopes of victory out of reach.
Neuville’s crash made it twice in consecutive rallies that a Hyundai has crashed out of the lead on Saturday morning – following Lappi’s accident on Rally México.
With Neuville out of action and retired, Evans assumed authority of the rally and made good work to hold on to his lead.
He had a charging Tänak behind for company however, and the gap – which stood at 22.6s after SS12 – eventually came down to just 12.5s by the end of stage 15.
But Tänak couldn’t continue to pile the pressure on to the leader as on the final few stages of Saturday afternoon his Ford Puma Rally1 began to struggle with some technical trouble – and in turn allowed Evans to extend the lead to 25.4s at the end of SS16.
The Toyota driver headed into Sunday and kept up his form, growing his advantage to 30.5s at the end of the final day’s opening stage.
And that was essentially all she wrote in the fight, with Evans eventually reaching the finish to take his first victory in almost two years – and his first ever WRC win on Tarmac.
In WRC2 it was Yohan Rossel who held off Nikolay Gryazin to take the class victory and make it two wins from two in 2023.
Rossel has held the lead since Friday and in the challenging conditions of the first day was able to put a good amount of time between himself and the rest of the competition – ending the day 29.9s ahead.
But Gryazin began to chip away at that lead under the improved weather of Saturday and Sunday – but ultimately it was to no avail, eventually finishing 16.1s off the front.
Meanwhile the battle for third went down to the wire between Emil Lindholm and Oliver Solberg.
Solberg – who did not score points this weekend – suffered a few problems through the weekend including a big spin on Saturday afternoon which smashed his back windscreen and was lucky to get away without more damage.
The powerstage saw the pair split by just 0.7s at the beginning, and that was a gap that Solberg was able to overcome, snatching third at the end by 2.1s overall.
But Lindholm still scored third-place points given Solberg not being classified this weekend, and he was pleased with the result.
“That’s good points. After Friday I was not expecting to be third in the points so we can be happy about that,” he explained.
“We tried to enjoy it and we fought until the end, but in this stage the intercom wasn’t working so Reeta [Hämäläinen, co-driver] was shouting quite loud!”
Meanwhile Adrien Fourmaux was able to overcome Sami Pajari on the final day to take fifth. The M-Sport driver ended with an 8.1s gap over Pajari.
A tough start to Fourmaux’s weekend meant he had to push right until the end, and it was a result he was happy with.
“I am really happy about the performance of the car this weekend,” Fourmaux said.
“We improved the car and it was much better this last two days. It’s good for me to drive at this pace on Tarmac because it was a bit difficult at times last year.”