The World Rally Championship’s first-ever visit to Rally Croatia featured a dramatic three-way fight for the lead that wasn’t decided until the very last stage.
Ultimately it was seven-time champion Sébastien Ogier who emerged victorious, beating his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans by just six-tenths of a second to take the points lead.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville led the rally after the first day but fell short of his first win with new co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe.
This enabled Ogier and Evans to earn Toyota’s second 1-2 finish of the year, extending its lead over Hyundai in the manufacturers’ championship.
As ever after a WRC round, DirtFish has examined what we learned from what was a dramatic rally, and we’ll start with the victor.
Ogier is still delivering when it matters most
He might be stepping away from competing full-time in the WRC at the end of the year, but Ogier is still able to deliver jaw-droppingly devastating performances exactly when it’s required.
Ogier’s road section accident on Sunday morning should have spelt the end of his podium hopes, let alone his victory chances. His performance on Sunday morning’s opener – the first stage after he sustained the damage – was therefore supreme.
He only dropped 2.7 seconds to his team-mate Evans and was 1.3s adrift of third-place Neuville’s time. Ogier’s pace was so consistent that the TV crews following the stage failed to even realize that there was a problem with his Yaris WRC.
Ogier said he “wasn’t driving well” on the downhill section in his stage-end interview but his demeanor gave no indication that he’d just been involved in a road traffic accident.
It soon became clear that there was significant cosmetic damage to his co-driver Julien Ingrassia’s door that should have lost the pair’s victory battle.
Ogier dropped seven seconds and handed the lead to Evans on the next stage, but he only leaked a further 1.1s on the penultimate test. This gave Evans a 3.9s advantage ahead of the powerstage, the same stage where Evans had gone seven seconds quicker than Ogier on the first pass.
Then Ogier delivered what will surely go down as one of his greatest stage victories – although there’s now 606 to choose from. Yes, Evans and Neuville made mistakes, but that’s because they knew Ogier was going to deliver something special.
Ingrassia deserves plenty of recognition too as he was able to deliver the pacenotes in his usual calm and precise manner despite a gap in his damaged door blasting air into the Yaris’s cockpit.
It’s performances like this one that make you sad that this is the last season that the duo will be competing in the WRC full-time. Make sure you savor every moment of it.
Evans’s final-stage jinx continues
Evans should have won Rally Croatia. And he’ll no doubt be kicking himself for a long time about the missed opportunities that went begging this weekend.
But first, let’s start positively. Evans was probably the most consistent driver in the field at the weekend, only placing outside the top-four in the stage times on one occasion.
The problem was that one occasion was the first major missed opportunity. Ogier picked up a puncture on Saturday afternoon’s opener and should have lost a significant amount of his leading advantage over Evans.
Instead, he only lost one-tenth as Evans struggled for confidence with large amounts of gravel and dirt strewn across the road. Neuville punishing Ogier by 10.1s showed exactly what Evans needed to do.
But the obvious missed opportunity came on Sunday. Evans had done the first half of the job by brilliantly taking back-to-back stage wins at a critical time, giving him a 3.9s buffer to Ogier. But the Frenchman tore through that margin in the first half of the powerstage.
Evans regrouped and the time was coming back to him on the second half of the stage. A first win of the year and the WRC points lead was in his grasp until he made a small error, clipped the banking and confined himself to second place.
Losing out to Ogier in a head-to-head is an all too familiar tale for Evans, having gone off the road when fighting Ogier for the title last year on the season-ending Monza Rally.
Looking further back, Evans is also no stranger to powerstage heartbreak. He lost a maiden win on Rally Argentina’s powerstage to Neuville by 0.7s in 2017 and a puncture dropped him from first to third on Corsica’s powerstage in 2019.
Evans still drove brilliantly to rival Ogier across the entire weekend and he’s still firmly in the hunt for this year’s championship, but he can’t afford to keep falling at the final hurdle if he wants the crown.
Hyundai is getting tire calls wrong – and Adamo knows it
It’s impossible to talk about missed opportunities without discussing Hyundai’s tire strategy.
Neuville delivered an impressive performance on Friday to lead the two Toyotas but his hard work was nullified when the team made the incorrect choice to mix the soft and hard compound tires on Saturday morning.
He dropped almost 20s and had to take risks thereafter to catch the leading duo.
As team boss Andrea Adamo pointed out, all too often when the crucial tire choices have to be made, Toyota usually prevails over Hyundai.
“In the last three years I’ve worked for Hyundai in this position,” Adamo said. “I think every time we’ve had to make a difficult tire choice, we’ve never really picked the proper one.”
There’s such little separating the cars or drivers among the two manufacturers that getting the strategy right has never been more important. It’s something Hyundai must improve on if it’s to stop Toyota from repeating its 2020 lockout of the top two positions in the drivers’ championship or even worse, stealing the manufacturers’ crown back.
Fourmaux has earned his place in the top class
Following on from Oliver Solberg’s speculator World Rally Car debut on Arctic Rally Finland was never going to be easy for Fourmaux. But he’s proved just as much – if not more – that he deserves a place in the WRC’s top-class.
He’s instantly delivered M-Sport’s best result of the season and set top-five stage times in nine of the 20 stages. Among them were two second-places, and Neuville only denied him a maiden stage win by 1.1s on one of them.
The only significant error of his maiden weekend was a visit to the banking on Sunday’s second stage. But he recovered from the off in style and crucially didn’t try to overcompensate in the following stages.
Fourmaux will be splitting his year between more outings in the second M-Sport Fiesta WRC and completing his WRC2 campaign. This should mean Fourmaux is participating in most rallies this year, which will give him vital experience ahead for his first full-time top-flight campaign, whenever that may be.
There’s no shortage of experienced ex-factory drivers or exciting young talents, but Fourmaux has begun to stake his claim for one of the 2022 factory seats with an impressive debut, just as the rumor mill starts to swirl.
Consistency will be king in WRC2
WRC2 Croatia winner Mads Østberg only needed to win five of the 20 stages to take the class win on the first rally of his title defense.
Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 driver Nikolay Gryazin won nine of the stages and may well have won had he not lost his power steering and dropped almost a minute and a half. When he returned, he rolled out of the rally and it cost him the final place on the podium.
Teemu Suninen, who stepped back to the second-tier for the first time since 2018, also showed class-winning pace but he stuffed it into the bush on SS4 and lost a minute.
Andreas Mikkelsen crashed his Škoda on SS2, but blitzed the powerstage and took the win 8.9s ahead of Suninen. Mikkelsen even managed to go faster than three of the leading World Rally Cars.
Ultimately Gryazin, Suninen and Mikkelsen all had the pace to beat Østberg but nobody could match his sublime consistency.
Even when his Citroën C3 Rally2 developed braking issues on Sunday, Østberg calmly limited the time lost to his rivals and demonstrated the killer consistency that led him to the second-tier crown last year.
If his rivals are to stop him from retaining that title, they have to be able to match the consistency of the former WRC factory driver across the entire rally.
Rally Croatia proved to be an instant classic
The 34th different country to stage a WRC event managed to provide a unique set of challenges that makes it worthy of a long-term future on the calendar.
It was far from just another asphalt rally, as it included a beautiful blend of fast-flowing corners and tight twisty narrow sections that left little margin for error.
The rally’s greatest challenge came in the form of the varying grip levels across the stages. The drivers and teams were kept guessing on tire choice and how much grip they’d find when they arrived into a corner.
There were small gaps between the competition throughout the rally and it provided one of the closest finishes in the championship’s history.
While there’s understandably been plenty of excitement for the return of WRC events in Kenya, Japan and most recently Greece, last weekend proved that we shouldn’t overlook the excitement that new additions like Rally Croatia can bring.