It was the perfect antidote to eight weeks in the dark. Sitting in the regroup in Kumrovec ahead of the powerstage, Croatia Rally was on a knife-edge. Again.
Last year it was Sébastien Ogier’s road crash and fightback that made the headlines, this time around it was torrential rain and apparently terrible tire choices which tipped round three on its head.
Come on, be honest, Friday night, Kalle Rovanperä sitting almost 1m30s to the good, who saw Sunday morning coming? Nobody.
Certainly not Toyota. Certainly not Rovanperä.
The championship leader owned Friday, winning six from eight stages and leading from the front all day. He’d hammered home the advantage that running on a clean road at the front of the field delivers, and he did it with ruthless precision and stunning self-confidence in tricky, changeable conditions.
The Finn’s wings had been clipped by a puncture on Saturday’s third stage, a deflation which carved a minute out of his advantage. As is often the case, the leader’s misfortune filled those following with optimism and a reason to open the taps a touch wider. Ott Tänak took time out of the #69 Toyota for the next two stages, bringing the gap down to 13s.
When Saturday’s penultimate test was binned because of the fog, Rovanperä took the opportunity to reboot. And then he went fastest.
Kalle’s not a driver prone to big emotions. It’s not really the Finnish way and it’s really, really not the Rovanperä way.
Having been taunted by his Hyundai rival, the leader grinned at his SS16 efforts.
“This is my reply.”
I’ve got to be honest, Tarmac rallies aren’t always my favorite. In the wrong conditions (i.e sunny), two things happen: I get too warm and question the sense in the pullover, and the World Rally Championship risks something of a procession.
There are the exceptions – like Croatia last year – but generally dry asphalt rallies can be a bit dull.
When it rains, rallies can get a bit bonkers.
Bonkers, I like. And that’s what we got on Sunday.
When Tänak departed service just after 6am, the sun was cresting the surrounding mountains and clouds and rain weren’t really on the horizon.
Four soft slicks and a couple of part-worn wets. Really?
The majority of the Estonian’s rivals had gone with a radically different direction: five hards.
“He must know something we don’t,” said one of his rivals. “They’re working with a different crystal ball.”
When Rovanperä pulled 12s out of the second-placed i20 N Rally1, further questions were asked.
Pirelli’s rally activity manager Terenzio Testoni’s a man who’s been around the sport a while and the savvy Italian sagely commented: “When we have a rally like this, you have to think a little bit like Monte Carlo. You cannot think for one stage, you have to think for the loop.”
The crews would tackle the final stage of the loop almost eight hours after they made their choice. A lot can happen in eight hours.
And an awful lot did happen in those eight hours.
Being around Toyota when the news broke that it was raining in the Trakoscan stage was fascinating. There was no panic or finger-pointing, but the calm, cool aura which had enveloped the Jyväskylä crew for the previous two-and-a-bit days was more than a bit disturbed.
When news came through that it was lashing it down to the point of Elfyn Evans switching off his hybrid, questions began to be asked.
And few were more pertinent than Rovanperä’s.
“Where did this weather come from? We had no idea there was going to be rain.”
Tänak’s choice – in this moment – was inspired. And he made the most of that inspiration to turn his rival’s hard-earned 28.4s lead into a 1.4s advantage of his own.
Which brings us to Kumrovec.
The long wait for the powerstage was passed by staring upwards at passing clouds and brightening skies.
The road dried, but had it dried enough? Would Ott’s soft compound be cooked or could Kalle fire enough heat into his hards to go back to the front?
The early indication was that it would be advantage Tänak.
That was before Rovanperä put in the stage of his short career. He turned the 2019 world champion over to the tune of 5.7s on a tire package which had no business delivering that sort of pace.
Every now and then, the WRC delivers a moment of sheer, unadulterated brilliance and that’s exactly what happened on Sunday afternoon.
Kalle had put it all out there, and he sat at the stop line after the stage waiting to know if it would be enough. There was a deep exhale. The sort of exhale that comes from a driver who knows he’s just got away with things that, on a different day, might not have delivered the same result.
Starting to unbuckle his helmet, the tell-tale sign of the last nine minutes was obvious from the shaking hands.
Tänak couldn’t match his pace. Even in the opening sector, where the soft slick-full wet combo would have been ideal to cut through the mud and muck, Kalle was quicker by a second.
Ott was straight out of the car and over to shake hands.
“He drove well,” said the runner-up nodding in his rival’s direction.
Having started the event 41 points south of the series leader, Tänak wasn’t willing to gamble a surefire 18 for a possible 25.
Neuville… where do we start?
Ready? OK, try this for a list:
– Alternator problem on SS4. He works on the car after the stage, cracks on a bit down the road section.
– Is forced to push the car into service. Co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe collapses (or at least has a good lie down) from the effort.
– Penalty for late arrival in service on Friday, 40s.
– Penalty for speeding on the road section, one minute.
– And it’s not just the time… Neuville and Wydaeghe bag themselves a couple of days of community service each for spending the thick end of six miles at almost twice the speed limit.
WHY HYUNDAI MIGHT APPEAL NEUVILLE’S PENALTY
There's still time for Neuville's team to end his weekend on a high
– Misses a junction on the motorway and is forced to travel an extra 12 miles on the way to SS9.
– Engine problem cuts power on SS13.
– 10s penalty leaving first service with a hybrid problem on Sunday morning.
– Crashes on the final stage, limps across the line with two punctured tires and no intercom.
Neuville spent almost as much time in the stewards’ room as he did on the stages.
But when he was on the stages, he was at his absolute brilliant, dogged best.
His effort to reel in Craig Breen and the bottom step of the podium was underpinned by a stunning run through SS18. It was Neuville gold.
It all looked to have come to nought when the cold, hard slick on the front-right of the Hyundai snatched, locked and speared the Belgians into a ditch on the last stage. Finally, some good fortune.
In the rallying equivalent of a slice of buttered toast tumbling to land dry side down, the Hyundai pitched up, swivelled and landed sort of back on the road. They made it out. They made it home.
Neuville and Wydaeghe earned their third place.
Fourth for Breen delivered some respite from a horribly tough week for M-Sport Ford. The Cumbrians were puncture central with Pierre-Louis Loubet’s debut in a Puma Rally1 Hybrid blighted by three deflations and an early bath on Friday. Gus Greensmith wasn’t far behind him, but demonstrated continued progress and pace when there was air in all four Pirellis beneath him.
And Adrien Fourmaux dropped his factory Ford in a farmer’s garden on Friday.
WE MET THE FARMER WHOSE GARDEN FOURMAUX CRASHED IN
He was keen to see the rally, but didn't expect a car in his hedge
McDonalds with the boss
When Andrew Wheatley was first announced as the FIA’s rally director, I talked about him being a man of the people. He underlined that last weekend, when he joined DirtFish for a ride out to the Saturday morning stages.
Fortunately, Wheatley’s known me for a while and is reasonably well acquainted with my occasional (and sometimes not so occasional) shortcomings behind the wheel. Reversing a Citroën Jumpy (think Gallic Transit van with windows) for a mile up a muddy farm track slap bang in the middle of nowhere, I got the feeling I might have tested his patience once too often.
Somehow, we made it back to a junction where Tarmac was, once again, a thing. There to greet us was the same farmer who had warned us against going down that road in the first place. Unfortunately, the warning came in Croatian. Man of the people he might be, fluent Croatian speaker, Wheatley is not.
With the local speak for “told you so…” ringing in our ears, we made our escape, bound for another spot to take rallying’s most important man.
The finish of stage nine was perfect. Almost. Did he mind a mile-long walk into the woods? Not a bit. Standing waiting for Esapekka Lappi, Andrew was in his element.
“Look at this,” he said. “We’re totally surrounded by people who have walked miles to get here. And did you look at the cars coming in? The fans have come from everywhere: Hungary, Slovenia, Germany, France and lots from Croatia. Rallies in this part of the world demonstrate the huge appeal this sport has. It’s fantastic.”
Any attempt to maintain conversation with Wheatley was lost every time a car came, he was lost to the spectacle.
“Incredible, that some people were worried we might lose some of the drama of these cars at the end of last year. These Rally1 cars are sensational.”
This was no PR offensive from Wheatley, this was just a chance for him to join the Brits on a bus tour to the stages.
SPECTATING WITH RALLYING’S NEW BOSS
The full story of the FIA rally director's DirtFIsh adventure
Driving back up the road to the capital, we passed a sign for a Burger King. Having swapped his Cockermouth base for an office in Geneva, I was disappointed in how much he’d changed.
No, a BK Whopper wasn’t the answer.
“There’s a McDonalds just off the motorway down here.”
Indeed there was.
Wheatley’s pragmatism extends beyond a Big Tasty and into the sport as a whole. He gets rallying’s challenges on all levels and Saturday morning demonstrated he’s ready, willing and able to take them all on.