Sat 20 Apr 2024

SATURDAY MIDDAY: Neuville heads Evans in three-way scrap for Croatia lead

Thierry Neuville led Croatia Rally by 4.7sec after Saturday’s morning loop as only 11.3sec blanketed the top three drivers in Zagreb.

Hyundai star Neuville began this penultimate leg tied for the lead with Toyota man and main championship rival Elfyn Evans, having heeded around 10sec to the Welshman on Friday when an impact with a rock resulted in a flat tyre.  

Although the title-hunting pair remained closely matched on Saturday morning, it was Neuville’s tyre management which gave him the slight edge he needed. The Belgian carried four soft and two wet compound Pirellis on board his i20 N car while Evans took only three soft, one hard and two wet-weather tyres.  

The rain showers never materialised, leaving Evans to run hard compound rubber on one corner of his GR Yaris all morning. Neuville took better care of his own softs and claimed wins on two of the loop’s asphalt speed tests and, crucially, was marginally quicker than Evans on all four of them.  

“I think we had probably a better tyre choice over the loop and probably kept a better tyre profile than the others,” he said. “We had good tyre management and that's what paid off.”

Evans’ Toyota team-mate Sébastien Ogier won SS10 and remained very much engaged in the sharp end of the battle. Using the same package as his colleague, damage to his hard option forced Ogier to bolt a wet tyre onto his car for the final stage. He trailed leader Neuville by 11.3sec, having started the day 6.6sec behind.  

Ott Tänak was lucky to avoid damaging his Hyundai when he brushed a hedge in SS10. Aside from that run-in with the foliage, the Estonian’s morning went smoothly and he maintained a 14.2sec gap to fifth-placed M-Sport Ford driver Adrien Fourmaux. Fourmaux won the opening stage at Smerovišće – Grdanjci but was slowed by an engine misfire towards in the final test.

Takamoto Katsuta remained sixth in his Toyota, 50.1sec adrift of Fourmaux but a comfortable 1min 17.5sec clear of Andreas Mikkelsen behind. Grégoire Munster held eighth while WRC2 pacesetters Nikolay Gryazin and Yohan Rossel completed the leaderboard.

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