Seven-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier overhauled Thierry Neuville to take the lead of Rally Croatia after setting a blistering pace on Saturday morning’s opening test.
Ogier claimed his fourth successive stage victory on the 12.61-mile Mali Lipovec – Grdanjci test to turn an overnight 7.7-second deficit to Neuville into a 3.1s rally lead, with his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans currently completing a Toyota 1-2.
Neuville was only sixth fastest on the stage and dropped 12s to Ogier and 9.2s to Evans.
A frustrated Neuville was left blaming his tire choice as the Hyundai drivers opted for a mixture of hard and soft compounds while Toyota’s leading duo chose the hard tires for the asphalt roads.
“Wrong tire choice this morning so I couldn’t keep the wheel in the line,” Neuville exclaimed after the stage.
Ogier was surprised to learn that he was on course to take the lead at stage end, but recognized that there are still 11 stages to go.
“Then it’s good news, but it’s only the first stage of the day,” Ogier said when told he was quicker than Neuville. “Very dirty in places so it will be a long day.”
Ogier’s closest competitor on the stage turned out to be WRC top-flight debutant Adrien Fourmaux, who set a stunning time just two seconds adrift of Ogier’s benchmark.
It marks M-Sport Ford’s best stage position of the season and completes Fourmaux’s pre-event goal of three top-five stage times.
Ott Tänak struggled with the same tire choice as his team-mate Neuville, but he still managed to set the fourth-quickest time to further cement that same position in the overall standings.
But there was further misery for Hyundai, as Craig Breen had to stop to change a puncture on his i20 Coupe WRC after clipping a kerb on a roundabout near the start of the stage.
“The first pass on the recce I couldn’t go in there because there was a truck parked there,” Breen explained. “I touched the kerb and had to change the tire.”
He lost over two minutes and that dropped him from the comfortable fifth place he had built himself into on Friday, down to ninth place.
It promotes Fourmaux into fifth place, with the Frenchman’s team-mate Gus Greensmith now in sixth.
Greensmith has 2C Competition Hyundai’s Pierre-Louis Loubet just two seconds behind him in the overall classification after Loubet set the fifth-fastest stage time.
Takamoto Katsuta is now eighth, 39s ahead of ninth-placed Breen.
A fourth WRC2 stage win for Nikolay Gryazin allowed him to close the gap to defending series champion and current class leader Mads Østberg to just 2.3s.
M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen is running in a comfortable third place in class, while reigning Junior WRC champion Tom Kristensen had his second crash of the weekend, having rejoined the rally on Saturday morning following a crash on Friday afternoon.
Yohan Rossel leads WRC3 and he’s doubled his advantage over three-time European Rally Champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz from 2.2s to 4.7s.
Former GT racer Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof was running third in class but he was forced to retire with an engine issue before the stage. This promoted Emil Lindholm into the final podium position and he was third-fastest on SS9 behind Rossel and Kajetanowicz.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 12m26.1s
2 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +2s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +2.8s
4 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +6.8s
5 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (2C Competition Hyundai) +7.7s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +12s
Leading positions after SS9
1 Ogier/Ingrassia 1h08m10.6s
2 Evans/Martin +3.1s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +4.3s
4 Tänak/Järveoja +31s
5 Fourmaux/Jamoul +1m09s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m29.1s
7 Loubet/Landais +1m31.5s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +2m27.9s
9 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +3m06.9s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +3m53.4s