World Rally Championship leader Kalle Rovanperä crashed out on the opening stage of Rally Croatia as Thierry Neuville went fastest to take an early lead.
Toyota’s Rovanperä began a WRC rally first on the road for the first time in his top-flight career, but it quickly ended in disaster just over three miles into the 4.31-mile Rude – Plešivica test, the shortest stage of the rally.
The 20-year-old set a first split time that would remain unbeaten, but a few moments later he slid wide at a tight right-hander and plunged his Toyota Yaris WRC down into the tree-strewn banking.
Rovanperä and his co-driver Jonne Halttunen were unhurt, but the damage sustained by their Yaris indicates that their day is already done.
This will leave Hyundai’s Neuville to open the road on Friday’s remaining seven stages.
Despite claiming he slowed when he saw Rovanperä’s crashed Yaris, Neuville was able to eclipse his team-mate Ott Tänak by 2.1 seconds to take the stage victory on a mix of two soft tires and two hard tires.
Tänak opted to run four hard tires on his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC but lamented the grip on the road, saying it was “like ice” and complained that “the road was full of s***”.
Elfyn Evans felt the grip was “pretty bad” was the fastest Toyota on the stage to complete the top three with a time that was 2.8s slower than Neuville’s benchmark.
Craig Breen made it three Hyundais in the top four as his second top-flight rally of the season got underway. He – like Evans – chose to fit four soft tires to his car for the stage.
It was a difficult start to the rally for seven-time champion Sébastien Ogier. This year’s Monte Carlo Rally winner had a moment at the corner where Rovanperä went off, where he knocked his rear-left tire off the rim, but he still ended up fifth-fastest, 6.5s down on Neuville.
Takamoto Katsuta rounded out the top six, admitting that he’d never driven on as slippery an asphalt surface as this opener.
Pierre-Louis Loubet was seventh-fastest on the stage, one place ahead of the leading M-Sport Ford Fiesta of top-flight WRC debutant Adrien Fourmaux.
Fourmaux ended the stage just over 10 seconds off Neuville’s time but over two seconds ahead of his team-mate Gus Greensmith, who began his partnership with new co-driver Chris Patterson.
Nikolay Gryazin set a blistering pace aboard his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 to build an early advantage in WRC2 ahead of two former factory WRC drivers.
Beginning the first rally of his WRC2 title defense, Mads Østberg was second quickest in the new Citroën C3 Rally2 ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen, with M-Sport World Rally Car regular Teemu Suninen, who is competing in the secondary class this weekend, fourth.
In WRC3, the Monte Carlo Rally class victor Yohan Rossel topped the times ahead of Emil Lindholm.
Eight seconds covered the eight entrants on the first stage of the opening round of the 2021 Junior WRC. Shakedown pacesetter Raul Badiu was fastest, 1.8s quicker than Lauri Joona.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 4m24.2s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +2.1s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +2.8s
4 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +6.4s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +6.5s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +7.2s