Neuville, Evans in dead heat after WRC Croatia Rally opening leg

Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and Toyota ace Elfyn Evans ended the Croatia Rally’s opening leg level on times after a frantic Friday on the all-asphalt event. 

There was nothing to separate the duo after eight rough and slippery asphalt stages totaling 74.4 competitive miles in the hills west of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. However, Neuville (above), who entered round 4 of the FIA World Rally Championship season with the title lead and a six-point margin over Evans, was left to rue missed opportunities.

Neuville won four of the day’s first five special stages, building a useful 10.1s advantage. However, the Belgian’s efforts were thwarted when his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 struck a rock in the sixth stage and sustained front-right tire damage that cost him around 10s.


Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 driver Evans seized the lead by winning the following 5.9-mile blast from Jaskovo to Mali Modrus Potok. Still, a late resurgence from Neuville in the day’s final stage saw both drivers finish the day on exactly the same total time — 1h5m15.3s — with Evan’s Toyota teammate Sebastien Ogier completing the top three positions just 6.6s behind.

Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier completed the podium spots after day one, 6.6s behind the ultra-close lead fight. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

“We are really disappointed [about the damaged tire] because it’s something that couldn’t have been avoided,” Neuville admitted. “I did what I could, but it was not a great day for us.”

Muddy conditions, and even flurries of snow, led to changeable grip levels. Eight-time WRC champ Ogier, who is running only a limited WRC program in 2024 and started sixth on the road based on his points position, was one of the worst effected by dirt being dragged onto the road by cars in front cutting corners for the fastest line.

Despite suffering a slow puncture in the opening stage and being caught in a localized rain shower in the first stage after the midday regroup, the Frenchman’s strong performance in the final stage propelled him back into contention.

Anticipating wet weather on Saturday, Ogier noted: “Tomorrow is the start of another rally, I think — much slower and much slippier.”

Ott Tanak ended 41.1s adrift of the lead in fourth overall. After noting that his Hyundai felt “nervous” in the morning, the Estonian enjoyed a more consistent afternoon and edged out Adrien Fourmaux’s M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 by 11.6s at day’s end.

M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux is aiming for a third-straight WRC podium, but lies fifth after Friday’s stages.

Completing the overall victory-contending hybrid Rally1 runners, Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta claimed sixth place ahead of Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen, who lost time in the morning after overshooting a junction, with M-Sport Ford’s Gregoire Munster heading back to Zagreb a steady eighth.

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, it was an all-Citroen duel for class honors between Nikolay Gryazin and Yohan Rossel. The pair of C3 pilots were in a class of their own over the opening day, opening a commanding lead of more than two minutes over the remainder of the WRC2 field.

Gryazin, making just his second WRC start in a Citroen C3, set the tone early by going 10.8s faster than DG Sport Competition teammate Rossel on the opening stage, leaving his rivals playing catchup over the next seven stages.

He would complete Friday with seven stage wins, while Rossel, also on his second start of the season, claimed one stage win and is well-placed to match his Monte Carlo Rally podium finish, 31.1s behind Gryazin.

Monte Carlo Rally WRC2 runner-up Pepe Lopez is making his Croatian debut this weekend, and despite his limited knowledge of the broken asphalt stages, the Spaniard positioned his Skoda Fabia RS comfortably in the third spot on the class podium.

Citroen driver Nikolay Gryazin meant business, setting seven fastest WRC2 stage times for a 31.1s class lead by day’s end. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Saturday’s second leg follows a similar format to Friday. Four stages are driven in the morning, then repeated in the afternoon, covering 67.58 competitive miles in total.    

WRC Croatia Rally, positions after Leg One, SS8
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 1h05m15.3s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +0.0s
3 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +6.6s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +41.1s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1) +52.7s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m37.8s 
7 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m37.8s
8 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +3m07.3s
9 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +3m48.3s
10 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +4m19.4s 

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Story originally appeared on Racer