Thierry Neuville survived another lairy moment on Friday’s final stage to lead Rally Croatia, while seven-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier moved into second with his third successive stage win.
Just 1.7s covered the top four drivers on the final 5.6-mile high-speed Pećurkovo Brdo – Mrežnički Novaki test on Rally Croatia’s opening day.
It was Ogier who made it three stage victories from three to close the gap to rally leader Neuville to just 7.7s heading into Saturday.
Hyundai’s Neuville ran wide at a fast left-hander and ran up the banking but he kept his foot planted and got his i20 Coupe WRC back onto the road.
“We had a small moment,” Neuville said at the end of the stage. “I tried to push a bit more but under braking I just lost the grip, I went a bit off but nothing major, it was all under control.”
Neuville has held the rally lead since the opening stage and run as the first car on the road since championship leader Kalle Rovanperä’s rally-ending crash on the same test.
Toyota’s assessment of Rovanperä damaged Yaris WRC during the afternoon concluded that he will not be able to return on Saturday.
His team-mate Ogier was 1.7s quicker than fellow Toyota driver Evans and that was enough for the seven-time champion to move into second place on the final stage of the day. Ogier was aware of Neuville’s moment, even before he reached the end of the stage.
“We have a nice battle ahead with Thierry and Elfyn,” he said. “I think he [Neuville] had a bit moment there? He went into the bank, I saw the line.
“That was a close one, but I also had a close one this morning!”
His team-mate Evans completes the top three, just eight seconds adrift of Neuville and 0.3s behind Ogier’s second place.
Neuville’s team-mate Ott Tänak posted the second-fastest stage time, but inconsistent flashes of that speed have left him in fourth place, 31.9s off the lead at the end of Friday.
The third i20 Coupe WRC of Craig Breen was sixth-quickest, and he admitted at the end of the stage there would be “some things to change in the car tomorrow”.
He was beaten by M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux, who set his second top-five stage time as his impressive first day in the WRC’s top flight ends with the Frenchman occupying sixth place overall.
Gus Greensmith was slower than Fourmaux for the seventh time on eight stages and conceded that it wasn’t the “cleanest stage”.
2C Competition Hyundai’s Pierre-Louis Loubet completes the top eight, just 9.8s away from Greensmith.
Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta is ninth and over two minutes off the lead, having lost time to a couple of spins in stages four and six.
Mads Østberg ended the first day of his WRC2 title defense with a 7.8s class-leading advantage over Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 driver Nikolay Gryazin.
Teemu Suninen, stepping back to the second-tier for the first time since the 2018 Monte Carlo Rally, runs in third place ahead of the Škoda of Marco Bulacia (pictured below).
Former WRC factory driver Andreas Mikkelsen crashed his Škoda on SS2. He rejoined the rally but is running in sixth place in class, almost 40 minutes adrift of his Norwegian compatriot Østberg.
Reigning Junior WRC champion Tom Kristensson’s promising WRC2 debut ended when a crash damaged his radiator and forced him to retire on Friday’s penultimate stage.
Yohan Rossel wrestled back the WRC3 lead from three-time European Rally Champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz on the final stage of the day, having fallen 0.1s behind him on the previous stage.
Former GT racer Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof is running in third place ahead of Emil Lindholm, who overtook Nicolas Ciamin on the final stage of the day.
Chris Ingram is sixth at the end of the first day of his maiden full-time WRC3 campaign.
Martin Koči leads the opening round of the 2021 Junior WRC after an incident-filled Friday. Sami Pajari, who finished third in the championship last year, was leading after the opening two stages but then rolled his Ford Fiesta Rally4.
He eventually recovered to the road, but he’d fallen almost four minutes behind the new leader Koči by the midday service break. Pajari set a number of stage-winning times in the afternoon in an attempt to maximise the series’ stage-win bonus point.
Koči’s main challenger became Lauri Joona, winner of the Flying Finn Future Star scheme last year, who ended the day 21.5s behind Koči. Esports star Jon Armstrong rounds out the top three, just 1.8s behind Joona.
1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 4m49.8s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +1.2s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1.4s
4 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +1.7s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +4.2s
6 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +5.1s
Leading positions after SS8
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe 55m36.8s
2 Ogier/Ingrassia +7.7s
3 Evans/Martin +8s
4 Tänak/Järveoja +31.9s
5 Breen/Nagle +54.8s
6 Fourmaux/Jamoul +1m14.7s
7 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1m21.7s
8 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (2C Competition Hyundai) +1m31.5s
9 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +2m23.2s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +3m17.6s