For the third year in succession, Croatia Rally produced an entertaining affair to cement its place as a modern classic on the calendar.
The feel of 2023’s event was far more emotional as the World Rally Championship service park came together to remember Craig Breen, but the action on the stages was more than a fitting tribute.
Here is what we learned from the fourth round of this year’s WRC.
Evans is a real title threat
A long 18 months had passed since Elfyn Evans last won a round of the WRC. The circumstances this time around were very different to Rally Finland back in 2021, but the statement was nonetheless the same.
Evans is a real title contender.
Finding a run of consistency that helped him challenge for the 2020 and ’21 titles, Evans’ 2023 had been simmering away nicely – particularly after a strong drive in México.
Arguably in Croatia he was less impressive in terms of speed, but the Toyota driver strung it all together while others were either hampered or contributed to their own downfall, and took a much-needed win that firmly lifts the monkey from his back.
The poisoned chalice lies in the fact he will lead the field away in Portugal, but that’s a price worth paying for Evans who now leads the championship (along with Sébastien Ogier) for the first time in over two years.
M-Sport is behind on reliability
For a while it looked as if Croatia Rally belonged to Ott Tänak.
Chasing down rally leader Evans, the M-Sport driver was carving into his rival’s advantage – only for hydraulic problems to peg him back and leave Tänak settling for second place instead for the second year in a row.
On the one hand this was an extremely positive event for the 2019 world champion. Never has he looked as happy, or as confident, behind the wheel of a Puma Rally1.
But on the other a reliability problem likely cost him a victory – and that cannot recur if Tänak wants to win the championship.
After power-steering problems on Monte Carlo and a turbo issue in México, it’s becoming clear that M-Sport is slightly behind Toyota and Hyundai when it comes to reliability. Pierre-Louis Loubet has suffered on this score too.
The potential is clearly there, it just needs to be fully capitalized on. After all, the only rally Tänak was clear of any issues, he won.
Ogier remains the benchmark
He may now share his championship lead with teammate Evans, but Sébastien Ogier’s name is still at the top of the pile despite the fact he stayed at home while the rest competed in Sweden.
Given his rich vein of form, the eight-time world champion was an obvious favorite for victory in Croatia – particularly given he started the first day in the best position on the road: first.
And sure enough Ogier bossed the opening stage, with only Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville able to live with him. But from there his weekend spiraled out of control as first a flat tire, then a one-minute penalty for a seatbelt infringement after changing said tire, followed by a 10s penalty for checking in late to Saturday’s opening stage after a mysterious suspension issue in service, restricted him to just fifth place.
However, on speed alone, Ogier would surely have won this one.
Rossel and Citroën are firm WRC2 contenders
Yohan Rossel and the Citroën C3 Rally2 are both known quantities on Tarmac. And known to be fast.
But the pace the Frenchman showed in WRC2 at the weekend was simply sensational. By the first lunchtime service Rossel was nigh on 30s clear of the chasing pack of Škodas.
Ominous? Quite possibly.
The Fabia RS Rally2 has been the class of the field so far this season, even if Rossel did sneak a win in Monte Carlo. But the upgraded C3 – equipped with a fresh engine and revised front aero in Croatia – was a clear step-up in performance.
The big test is what man and machine can do on gravel, but that’s now two from two from Rossel who has re-established a handsome lead in WRC2.
Hyundai (and WRC) did Breen proud
Spare a thought for every single team member at Hyundai Motorsport. Croatia Rally was a difficult week for everyone involved in the WRC, but it must have been excruciatingly difficult for Hyundai.
Just a week after Craig Breen tragically lost his life in a testing accident, it had to put all of the emotion aside and compete in the WRC.
Everywhere you looked there were touching tributes to Craig, from the car’s redecoration to the colors of the Irish flag to the book of condolences it had available to sign in its reception that also featured a mural on the desk, Hyundai did all it could to celebrate Craig’s life.
Sadly it never achieved the result it so badly wanted – it was agonizingly close until Thierry Neuville went out from the lead – but everyone at Hyundai should be proud of first of all simply competing in Craig’s honor, and second of all doing all it could to make it feel like he was there.
WRC Promoter and the Croatia Rally organizer deserves credit there too for all its fitting tributes – such as the group family photo, silence at the ceremonial start and no champagne on the podium.
It will still take some time to make sense of what has happened, but Hyundai – and the WRC in general – did all it could to keep the show on the road just like Craig would have wanted.