After a long, long break without World Rally Championship action, truthfully we’d have been happy with a relatively mundane affair on last weekend’s Croatia Rally.
But that’s precisely what we didn’t get, with ultra-challenging conditions, wildly varying times and plenty of incidents punctuating what was ultimately an absolute thriller.
Fittingly there was a nail-biting finish to the event, but the one man who can do no wrong of late came up trumps once again.
Here’s what we learned from 2022 Croatia Rally.
THE LAST TIME A DRIVER WAS SO DOMINANT ON FRIDAY
Rovanperä's day one lead surpassed a minute, a feat not achieved since 2015
Rovanperä looks unstoppable
“I think this was Kalle’s best performance ever,” said Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala as he addressed the media in the post-event FIA press conference.
Whether you agree with Latvala’s assessment, there can be no denying that this was probably the most important performance of Rovanperä’s still-young career to date.
Such was his points lead before Croatia, Rovanperä didn’t need to win. And yet his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 was over a minute ahead of anyone else at the end of Friday – the first time anyone has had over a minute in hand after the first day since Kris Meeke in Argentina seven years ago.
The battle fluctuated from there as a puncture and then an inspired tire call from Ott Tänak momentarily put the Hyundai ahead, but when the chips were down Rovanperä cashed in.
Second would’ve been fine given he was ahead of all of his nearest title rivals, but a sensational performance on the powerstage meant he won one better and scooped all five bonus points for good measure.
It’s crushing, it’s mesmerising, it’s a problem for his rivals. We might only be three rounds into a 13-round season, but Rovanperä’s championship hand is getting stronger and stronger and stronger.
Tänak’s still at his best
Second will sting a bit for Ott Tänak. No driver wants to stand on the podium’s second-highest step, but having just taken the rally lead with a fantastic soft tire gamble on the final day, to be trounced by Rovanperä on the powerstage was not how his story was supposed to end.
But there are plenty of positives to take, not least the performance of the Hyundai continuing to stand up in changeable grip conditions and of course his first big points haul of the season.
Tänak looked very chilled and at ease all weekend, right from as early as Thursday when the rally began to get underway. His pace wasn’t quite at team-mate Thierry Neuville’s level but his result was far superior as he didn’t make any mistakes.
It was an important result for the WRC though, as the championship needs its only permanent world champion fighting at the front. Tänak did so in Sweden only for a hybrid problem to beset him. He managed it in Croatia, and it could well be the springboard for more.
Evans’ task just got harder
Elfyn Evans is finally up and running with his first top 10 finish of the season, but a muted fifth spot was far from the swashbuckling victory he craved that would’ve reignited his title charge.
As it is, although his name now appears in the top 10 of the championship standings, his deficit to runaway leader and Toyota team-mate Rovanperä has swelled to a whopping 59 points.
To put that in layman’s terms, Rovanperä could miss the next two rallies in Portugal and Italy and only be one point behind Evans if he won both and took maximum powerstage points.
The silver lining is Evans’ road position for those upcoming gravel events will be a huge benefit, so the big results could be on the horizon. And he didn’t put a wheel wrong either – a first-stage puncture robbing him of over a minute on the first stage and restricting him to a quiet event.
But let’s no beat about the bush, Evans’ chances of becoming 2022 World Rally champion don’t look particularly strong.
Fourmaux hasn’t learned
Twelve months ago, Adrien Fourmaux arrived in Croatia as a relatively unknown and unproven prospect – contesting his first WRC event in a World Rally Car in just his fifth season of rallying.
Fifth place on that event was stunning, and his career was simply destined to take off from there. Where has it all gone wrong?
The sight of the #16 M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 crashed off the side of the road is becoming far too familiar, and something simply has to change. Zero points on the board from three rallies is not what M-Sport signed him up for, and it’s hurting the team in its chase for the manufacturers’ title with what is clearly a very good car.
There was an element of misfortune to Fourmaux’s Croatian retirement. The corner he crashed on also caught out Neuville, and Fourmaux felt the warning his team had given him wasn’t quite clear enough. But he was still the one behind the wheel.
Fourmaux claimed before Croatia that he had learned from his big Monte Carlo Rally mistake. The evidence after the rally perhaps suggest the opposite. The next few rallies could be crucial to the young Frenchman’s career.
THE FARMER WHOSE GARDEN FOURMAUX CRASHED IN TO
He was keen to see the rally, but wasn't expecting a Rally1 car in his hedge
Rossel is a WRC2 threat
Yohan Rossel was sensational throughout his WRC3 campaign last year – in fact DirtFish ranked him as the best Rally2 driver of 2021. But there was a risk that he would struggle to compete this season with the WRC’s two Rally2 classes amalgamating to become just WRC2.
Forget those fears, as Rossel has well and truly announced himself as the real deal once again.
In all fairness his Monte Carlo Rally showed us the same – his pace strong to worry reigning WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen. Rossel just didn’t get a result to boast about due to a multitude of errors.
But in Croatia he was sensational. Consistently fast and staying out of trouble, Rossel finished seventh overall and was the class of what was once again a very competitive field and must now be regarded as a very serious title threat.
Rally3 cars can mingle
We’d seen a hint of it on the European Rally Championship-scoring Rally Azores via some stunning Jon Armstrong times, but Croatia really proved something that everyone had quietly wondered but sort of forgotten about.
The Rally3 car is a proper pocket rocket.
Croatia was a bit of an equalizer given the ever-changing weather and slippery conditions, and the caliber of this year’s WRC 3 Junior bunch – who are all using Ford Fiesta Rally3s – is high. But the exact same thing can be said about the quality of WRC2 right now, so for Rally3 drivers to be beating Rally2 cars on stages was remarkable.
It peaked with a stunning eighth overall time for Sami Pajari on the extremely challenging Platak test, just 1.5s off Gus Greensmith’s Puma Rally1 two categories above and faster than every single Rally2 car bar one.
And that wasn’t all. William Creighton punched in the 12th best time on the penultimate stage too. Admittedly, these two examples were both on particularly challenging stages where driver skill can offset machinery and bad tire choices cost drivers in the top two categories dearly, but it was still quite remarkable to see how quick these cars are.
THE CROATIA STAGE THAT BECAME ONE OF THE WRC'S TOUGHEST
Low visibility turned SS9 into a stage that truly tested the world's best drivers
Croatia is still a monster
Last year’s Croatia Rally as an immediate classic thanks to the surprisingly low grip conditions and the dramatic ending. This year’s event was possibly even better.
In the second edition of the event as a WRC qualifier, the victory fight went down to the event-closing powerstage and provided a nail-biting finish, and for the second year in a row the stages were ready to punish anybody who had even a monentary lapse in concentration.
There wasn’t a single driver who had a truly trouble-free weekend, and ultimately as fans that’s what we crave – the world’s best rally drivers being tested throughout.
The crowds were rapturous, stages entertaining and most imporantly unique, and the weather (albeit a variable element) absolutely delivered for good measure.
Croatia had the feeling of a modern day classic in the making after its WRC debut in 2021. That sentiment has now only been enhanced.