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Sat 20 Apr 2024

Neuville leads titanic three-way battle into Croatia Rally finale

Thierry Neuville led a finely-balanced Croatia Rally after Saturday’s enthralling penultimate leg ended with the leading three drivers blanketed by 11.6sec.

After a day of many twists and turns – literally and metaphorically – Hyundai i20 N star Neuville held a 4.9sec advantage over Toyota rival Elfyn Evans, provisionally scoring 18 points to boost his championship charge against the Welshman. Eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier made it two GR Yaris cars inside the top three, ending within 11.6sec of the top spot.

The morning swung in Neuville’s favour thanks to his efforts in preserving his four soft compound Pirelli P Zero tyres. Evans, who had ended Friday tied with the Belgian, dropped 4.7sec across the loop as he struggled to juggle only three softs, two wets and one hard tyre in the absence of forecasted rain.

All three Toyota crews opted to carry four soft and two wet tyres for the repeated afternoon loop while Neuville chose a more diverse package comprising two hards, two softs and two wets.

Although that strategy initially paid off for the Japanese marque when Evans reclaimed the lead after beating Neuville by 6.7sec in the light drizzle of SS13, Neuville responded by winning the final three asphalt tests in predominantly dry conditions to go back in front.

Neuville’s Saturday standing will earn him 18 points, providing he completes Super Sunday. Evans will receive 15 while Ogier gets 13.

“It’s not a big lead, but we had a great day,” smiled the leader. “Despite a not perfect tyre choice this afternoon we were capable of defending our lead. We need to continue attacking and have a good tyre choice [on Sunday]. It wasn’t easy when the weather wasn’t very easy to judge.”

Ott Tänak was fourth, more than a minute further back in another i20. The Estonian was lucky to escape with nothing more than slightly a bent rear wheel when he ran wide on a left-hander and clipped a kerb.

Tänak had 19.9sec in hand over Adrien Fourmaux’s Ford Puma in fifth. Fourmaux was again impressive in his M-Sport machine, taking the fastest time at Smerovišće – Grdanjci to stretch his advantage over Toyota’s third driver Takamoto Katsuta.

Seventh-placed Andreas Mikkelsen suffered another time-consuming overshoot but felt increasingly comfortable aboard his Hyundai by the day’s finish. Grégoire Munster gained more valuable experience in his Puma to end the day eighth while WRC2 stars Nikolay Gryazin and Yohan Rossel completed the leaderboard.

Four more stages lie in wait in Sunday’s finale, with up to 12 championship points still up for grabs. They total 54.78km before the finish in Croatian capital Zagreb.