Saturday morning’s Croatia Rally stages were probably the closest any of the World Rally Championship’s current crop of drivers have come to driving completely blind.
Platak was especially difficult, with the mist and the rain making it almost impossible for anyone to see where they were going, and conditions were so bad in the afternoon the stage was canceled before anyone could attempt it for a second time.
It was a true test of ability for every driver tackling the stage. Some thrived on it – like Ott Tänak, who had a full wet set of Pirelli’s grooved wet tires fitted – and others struggled, lacking the confidence to push despite the limited visibility. But everyone was challenged.
However, M-Sport’s Craig Breen was one driver that did rise to the challenge.
He couldn’t match Tänak’s blistering pace, but that wasn’t down to his fundamental speed.
Breen was tackling the sodden stage with dry tires, but despite that, he was only six tenths of a second shy of Thierry Neuville’s time, who was on a cross between both compounds.
While he was naturally pleased with what he achieved on the stage, he was also under no illusions about the task he had just completed.
“It was incredibly tricky I have to say. The fog was not something I expected,” Breen explained to DirtFish.
“I expected there was going to be some fog, but it was only when we got close to the stage that we realized just how bad it was.
“We did a good job I think compared to Thierry on the same tires, we were on the same time. So I was quite happy.”
At the end of the test, Breen commented that it was the worst stage he had ever driven, and when asked about that comment later in the day, he reiterated the point.
“I think I’ve probably had worse fog, but it’s maybe on gravel when you have a little bit more margin.
“But here, when you have absolutely zero margin and zero grip sometimes. So I think altogether it was some of the most difficult.”
Watching the onboard footage of every driver tackling Platak, it’s easy to recognize that the drivers can’t see much beyond the hood of their car. But that’s not the only issue.
The mind also begins to play tricks, making them think the road is heading in a different direction, and that’s when the co-driver’s role really comes to the fore.
“You’re trying not to let your eyes trick you sometimes because it’s the pacenotes that are your bible and not your eyes sometimes,” Breen added.
“It’s crazy to say, but sometimes your eyes can pick up references that are not correct.
“So you just try to find a compromise between the two. It’s difficult, I have to say.”
In contrast to Breen, Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta didn’t fare well on the stage. The conditions got the better of him and in the end he felt the only thing he could do was slow down to ensure he made it through the 9.85-mile test without any major issue.
“I decided to just bring the car back because conditions were so bad,” said Katsuta.
“Of course, I lost one minute, but I think without confidence you’re just making stupid mistakes, so I just decided that way.”
Katsuta didn’t just back off a little bit, he slowed right down, to the point that there was no heat in the tires, and in the end he also switched off the hybrid power too.
“[I was going at] like recce speed almost. Because without the confidence and good feeling, if you see the standing water and things, car is easily going somewhere else [aquaplaning].
I got through it but it was pretty bad. With the cross tire, the soft, especially in the first half, there was no grip at all and it’s a new stageELFYN EVANS
“So I just wanted to see how it’s going with crossed tires.
“Actually, I switched [the hybrid] off on the stage.
“Sometimes hybrid boost can help you to gain more time, but sometimes it just makes it more slippery on the road.”
As Katusta alluded to, the tire choice for the stage played a big role in the confidence in feel for the drivers.
On full wets Tänak was able to find grip that the others couldn’t locate, and the crossed compounds also complicated matters further as one tire would find something in the surface to latch onto, but the other wouldn’t.
Elfyn Evans took the same approach as Katsuta in using cross tires, and he started cautious but did eventually find a groove.
“I got through it but it was pretty bad,” Evans said when asked how hard the stage was.
“With the cross tire, the soft, especially in the first half, there was no grip at all and it’s a new stage.
“Seems to be rocks everywhere, so I was definitely on the cautious side.
“Actually once you got on to the wide road, the grip was pretty good. It’s only that you couldn’t see much past the bonnet. So it was difficult.”