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Fri 19 Apr 2024

FRIDAY MIDDAY: Rampant Neuville sets the early pace in Croatia

Thierry Neuville took full advantage of his starting position on Friday morning at Croatia Rally, opening an 8.6sec advantage after winning three out of four asphalt speed tests.

As FIA World Rally Championship leader coming into round four of the season, Neuville is opening the road on this opening day - and the Belgian extracted every benefit offered by the cleaner, less polluted surface to reach the mid-leg tyre-fitting zone at the head of the field.

Despite reporting a lack of front-end grip in his Hyundai i20 N, Neuville was beaten just once - on the Jaškovo - Mali Modruš Potok test – when Toyota GR Yaris rival Elfyn Evans pipped him by 1.7sec. Evans held second at the day’s midpoint, 12.9sec clear of his third-placed team-mate Sébastien Ogier.

“I can't attack,” Neuville said. “I have to be so smooth and clean, there's no way for me to push otherwise it doesn't work. I would like to go a little bit faster, but it is what it is. They are tricky conditions and if the feeling isn't there it's tough.”

Although there were some stage-side dustings of snow high in the mountains west of the capital city Zagreb, the roads themselves remained primarily dry with some damp sections.

Back in action for the first time since January’s Rallye Monte-Carlo, Ogier was sixth in the starting order. He faced slippery conditions with mud being pulled onto the line by cars ahead, and a slow puncture in the opening stage made his top-three standing all the more impressive.

Ott Tänak found the roads to be equally greasy and trailed Ogier by 15.8sec in fourth overall after struggling to build his confidence.

“There’s so much mud already,” he explained. “The car is behaving really nervously and it’s difficult to take much confidence.”

Adrien Fourmaux was hindered by overheating tyres in SS1 but quickly settled back into his M-Sport Ford Puma to end the loop just 4.3sec back from Tänak in fifth. He had more than half a minute in hand over Toyota man Takamoto Katsuta, who explained that it had been difficult to trust the information provided by his route note crew.

Hyundai’s Andreas Mikkelsen languished more than a minute adrift of the lead, his standing not helped by a costly overshoot in the second stage. Puma rookie Grégoire Munster held eighth while WRC2 frontrunners Nikolay Gryazin and Yohan Rossel completed the leaderboard.

The same stages will be repeated this afternoon, bringing the day’s total to 119.74km before the overnight halt in Zagreb.

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