Thierry Neuville took a timely stage win on Rally Croatia’s Saturday afternoon opener to bring himself back into victory contention, as the rally leader Sébastien Ogier picked up a puncture.
Neuville led the event after Friday’s stages but he fell almost 20 seconds from the lead after his Hyundai team made the wrong tire choice for the Saturday morning loop.
The Hyundai driver was back on form on the second pass through the 12.61-mile Mali Lipovec test and drove with just one spare tire, compared to the two taken by the leading two Toyotas of Ogier and Elfyn Evans.
“With the right tires on the car, the car is working really nice,” said Neuville after picking up his first stage win of the day.
“It was a really challenging stage, but I had a good rhythm, a couple of slides where I lost a little bit but I saw many lines everywhere so I guess it’s the same for everybody.”
Ogier picked up a slow front-right puncture just over a mile from the end of the stage and the tire was off the rim by the time his Yaris reached the end of the stage.
He was matching Neuville on split times prior to his puncture, but ended up 10.1s adrift of Neuville’s stage-winning benchmark of 12m31.9s.
Ogier’s team-mate Evans struggled for confidence on the gravel-strewn asphalt road and admitted he was “just not brave enough in the gravel”.
Evans ended up only beating Ogier’s time by a single tenth and lost 10s to Neuville.
This means Neuville is now just 2.6s behind Evans and 9.5s adrift of the rally lead.
Top-flight WRC debutant Adrien Fourmaux compared the downhill section at the end of stage to “skiing – it’s amazing”. His enjoyment was translated into the second-fastest stage time.
Hyundai’s Ott Tänak couldn’t match Fourmaux’s pace, but he is still 40s ahead of the M-Sport driver in fourth place overall.
After a difficult Friday morning, Gus Greensmith was able to find more rhythm aboard his Ford Fiesta WRC to set his first top-five stage time of the weekend.
“I was given a few strong words of advice, so I’ll listen to them,” said Greensmith when asked what changed in the service park.
There’s now just 6.7s separating Pierre-Louis Loubet and Greensmith in the battle for sixth place, with Greensmith 2.3s quicker than the 2C Competition Hyundai driver on the stage.
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta was the first driver on the stage, which was briefly delayed due to concerns over the position of spectators.
He was the slowest of the nine leading World Rally Cars on the stage and lost 11.6s to Hyundai’s Craig Breen who is now 49.7 seconds behind Katsuta’s eighth position, having lost two minutes on Saturday’s morning due to a puncture.
In WRC2, there was heartbreak for Nikolay Gryazin as he lost the powersteering on his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 and dropped a minute and a half to the class-leading Citroën C3 Rally2 of Mads Østberg.
Gryazin was just 2.3s behind Østberg after the morning loop, but he is now down to third and faces a race against time to fix the issue before the next stage.
M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen was the fastest driver on the stage and he moves up to second place following Gryazin’s misfortune.
Yohan Rossel lost the WRC3 lead and dropped to fourth place after rolling on Saturday morning. He began his recovery with the fastest time on the afternoon’s opener, which leaves him just under three minutes adrift of the class leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz.
A gap of 42s separates Kajetanowicz from second-place Emil Lindholm, with Chris Ingram currently rounding out the top three.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 12m31.9s
2 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +1.1s
3 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +2.3s
4 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +8.7s
5 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +9.8s
6 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +10s
Leading positions after SS13
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 1h43m48.6s
2 Evans/Martin +6.9s
3 Neuville/Wydaeghe +9.5s
4 Tänak/Järveoja +29.7s
5 Fourmaux/Jamoul +1m09.7s
6 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (2C Competition Hyundai) +1m52s
7 Greensmith/Patterson +1m58.7s
8 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +2m41.4s
9 Breen/Nagle +3m31.1s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +5m42.2s