Sébastien Ogier snatched victory on the final stage of the World Rally Championship’s first-ever Rally Croatia, after overhauling his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans to win by six tenths aboard a damaged Yaris WRC.
Evans’s rally lead stood at 3.9 seconds prior to the rally-ending powerstage, with Thierry Neuville a further 4.1s behind second-place driver Ogier, who was piloting a wounded car following an accident on the road section before the morning’s first stage.
Neuville was the first of the leading trio onto the 8.75-mile Zagorska Sela – Kumrovec powerstage but his victory chances evaporated when he went straight on at a right-hand junction and lost a handful of seconds.
Ogier was the next to post his time and although it was the fastest effort, he didn’t believe he’d done enough to beat his team-mate, who was the last leading World Rally Car to start the stage.
Evans was marginally slower than Ogier through the splits but made a small error just moments before the end of the stage as his Yaris WRC slid up onto the grass on a narrow section of road. That left Ogier with a slender winning margin of just 0.6s after 20 stages.
“That last corner, I got onto the loose and missed the next corner,” Evans explained.
“For sure it wasn’t all lost there but a second was gone. It’s a shame but there was a big fight all weekend and hats off to Seb for that last stage.”
Just 10.4 seconds had covered the leading trio heading into the final four stages of the all-asphalt event, but that battle was turned on its head when Ogier, the leader on Saturday, was involved in an accident on the road section before SS17.
Ogier’s Yaris WRC collided with a public car on the road and sustained severe cosmetic damage down the right-hand side. The co-driver’s door had to be taped shut and with no service break on Sunday, Ogier had to carry the damage throughout all four stages.
“It’s been an eventful weekend for me,” Ogier said understatedly after winning the powerstage in a damaged Yaris.
Unsurprisingly, Ogier’s 6.9s leading advantage evaporated on Sunday’s first two stages, with Evans finding his form at the perfect time to claim back-to-back stage victories. The 2020 WRC runner-up rocketed into the lead on Sunday’s second stage and looked to be on course for his first win of the season until the powerstage.
Ogier also had to survive three punctures on Saturday, the most high-profile of which came on SS13, the first stage of the afternoon loop. He dropped over 10s to Neuville when his tire came off the rim on the final section of the stage, but a cautious Evans was only able to take 0.1s off Ogier – meaning the latter remained in the lead.
Neuville was the early rally leader on Friday but he was left to rue his team’s decision to send him to Saturday morning’s stages with a mix of hard and soft compounds tires, while the leading Toyota duo stuck to hard tires only.
This proved to be a costly decision as Neuville fell almost 20s behind rally leader Ogier, leaving Neuville’s team boss Andrea Adamo saying that “miracles” from the Toyota drivers were needed for Neuville to overhaul them.
He and his co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe ultimately had to settle for the final place on the podium for the third consecutive event this year. The three bonus powerstage points leaves Neuville tied for second in the drivers’ championship with Evans, with Ogier eight points further ahead.
Ott Tänak failed to find the form that took him to a dominant Arctic Rally Finland victory in February. He struggled with confidence on Friday and fell further adrift of the podium fight on Saturday.
“It’s far away from my comfort zone and it’s not natural at all,” Tänak said after claiming a single point on the powerstage.
“For me, there is a job to do, but Thierry has done very well so at least it’s good for someone.”
Adrien Fourmaux announced himself on the WRC stage with an impressive top-flight debut aboard his Ford Fiesta WRC. A near-flawless drive across Friday and Saturday catapulted him into the top five, and he survived a lairy one-minute stop in the banking on Sunday morning with the help of some spectators.
He posted a pair of second-place stage times to claim fifth place on debut for M-Sport – the highest-ever finish for a driver making their top-flight debut with the outfit.
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta finished in sixth place for the third successive rally and claimed two stage wins on Saturday – increasing his career WRC stage-win total from one to three.
M-Sport Ford driver Gus Greensmith was able to maintain pace with his new team-mate on Friday, but he fell away on Saturday and lamented brake and hydraulic issues on Sunday morning. He survived a couple of wild moments on the powerstage to finish in seventh place to register his best points haul of the season so far in his first rally with his new co-driver Chris Patterson.
Craig Breen had a troubled rally aboard a third i20 Coupe WRC. He was running in a solid fifth place after Friday, but he clipped a roundabout on Saturday’s opening test and lost two minutes with a puncture.
He was unable to make much of a significant fightback thereafter and ended up in eighth place overall, though he had a starring role on the powerstage and picked up four points for the second-fastest time.
Kalle Rovanperä, the points leader prior to the weekend, bowed out of the rally on the opening stage when understeer sent his Yaris off the road on the entry to a right-hander and into the trees.
Rovanperä and his co-driver Jonne Halttunen were unhurt, but the car was too damaged for the duo to return later in the weekend.
He drops to fifth in the drivers’ championship as a result of the non-score.
2C Competition Hyundai’s Pierre-Louis Loubet was on course for his best-ever finish in the WRC, but he crashed out of sixth place on Saturday afternoon’s second stage. He rejoined the rally on Sunday but he was slower than the fastest WRC2 entry on the powerstage, confining him to a third successive non-points finish.
In WRC2, Mads Østberg began his title defense in the best possible fashion with what appeared a comfortable victory. The final winning margin over Teemu Suninen, who stepped back to the second tier for the first time since the 2018 Monte Carlo Rally, stood at 28.5s.
But it was anything but easy for Østberg, who nursed braking issues on his Citroën C3 Rally2 throughout Sunday and called it one of the “worst days” he had experienced in rallying. He also faced stiff competition from Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 driver Nikolay Gryazin.
Gryazin was just 2.3s adrift of Østberg heading into Saturday afternoon but he lost his powersteering on the first stage of the loop and dropped almost a minute and a half behind. He recovered to fight Suninen for second, only to roll out of the rally on the penultimate stage.
Suninen lost a minute on Friday morning when he went off the road, but he recovered strongly to finish in second place and claim four powerstage points, while Škoda driver Marco Bulacia took the final spot on the podium.
Andreas Mikkelsen crashed his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo on the second stage of the rally but, with Gryazin and 2020 Junior WRC champion Tom Kristensson both crashing out, he finished in fifth place – albeit 40 minutes behind Østberg. He also won the powerstage to boost his WRC2 championship lead.
Three-time European Rally Champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz took his second-ever WRC3 class win, ending up with an advantage of over a minute to Emil Lindholm. Yohan Rossel rounded out the podium after recovering from a roll that took him out of the lead on Saturday morning.
Esports star Jon Armstrong won the opening round of the Junior WRC ahead of the 2020 runner-up Mārtiņš Sesks and Finn Lauri Joona.
Sami Pajari, who finished third in the standings last year, was the early leader until he crashed on Friday morning. The experienced Martin Koči took up the lead but he lost it to Armstrong on SS14 when he picked up a puncture on his Ford Fiesta Rally4.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 8m14.052s
2 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +2.967s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +4.016s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +4.542s
5 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +5.414s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +12.208s
1 Ogier/Ingrassia 2h51m22.9s
2 Evans/Martin +0.6s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +8.1s
4 Tänak/Järveoja +1m25.1s
5 Fourmaux/Jamoul +3m09.7s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +3m31.8s
7 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +3m58.8s
8 Breen/Nagle +4m28.2s
9 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +10m00.8s
10 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +10m29.3s