Thierry Neuville won Rally Croatia’s penultimate stage to ensure just eight seconds cover the top three drivers ahead of the new asphalt World Rally Championship event’s powerstage.
Neuville set his sights on the wounded Toyotas Yaris WRC of Sébastien Ogier, who is nursing significant cosmetic damage on his car following a crash on the road section prior to the first stage of the day.
Ogier lost the lead to his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans on the previous stage, and leaked a further 1.1 seconds on SS19, meaning the gap between the leading pair is 3.9s ahead of the final test.
“I’m pushing pretty hard,” said Evans. “It’s not so easy with that downhill section, trying to guess how much gravel [dragged onto the road] there is.”
Neuville beat Evans by 0.4s to take his first stage victory of the day and close the gap to the 2020 WRC runner-up to just 8s. Neuville is now 4.1s off Ogier’s second place.
“I gave it everything in there. I can’t do more,” Neuville exclaimed.
Ott Tänak was sixth quickest on the stage, and is likely saving his tires for the points-paying powerstage. Tänak is currently running in a comfortable fourth place, over a minute and a half ahead of the fifth-placed Adrien Fourmaux.
Asked about his powerstage ambitions, a coy Tänak replied: “To finish the rally.”
Top-flight debutant Fourmaux avoided a repeat of the mistake that cost him a minute on SS18 to set the fourth-fastest time, further consolidating his fifth place ahead of the powerstage.
Having overtaken Gus Greensmith on the previous stage for sixth, Katsuta stretched his advantage over the M-Sport Ford driver to 20.9s but he could not make inroads on Fourmaux.
At the end of the stage, Greensmith admitted that his Fiesta WRC was still suffering from a braking issue.
Hyundai’s Craig Breen continues to run in a lonely eighth place and is 49.8s behind Greensmith seventh.
The stage was stopped shortly after the leading World Rally Cars made it through, when Nikolay Gryazin crashed his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 out of the fight for second place in WRC2.
His car blocked the road and only Mads Østberg and Teemu Suninen were able to set a time.
Suninen beat Østberg by 8.1s, but he is still 30.9s off the class lead with one stage remaining.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 13m59s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +0.4s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +1.5s
4 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +12.1s
5 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +14.2s
6 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +15.9s
Leading positions after SS19
1 Evans/Martin +2h43m05s
2 Ogier/Ingrassia +3.9s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +8s
4 Tänak/Järveoja +1m23.6s
5 Fourmaux/Jamoul +3m01.4s
6 Katsuta/Barritt +3m18.4s
7 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +3m39.3s
8 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +4m29.1s
9 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +9m38.2s
10 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +10m09.1s