Neuville sets the pace to lead title rival Evans

The Hyundai driver set the pace by winning three of the four stages to open up an 8.6s lead over nearest title rival Evans.

Eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier coped admirably as stage conditions worsened after every pass to end the loop in third, 21.5s adrift. Hyundai’s Ott Tanak held fourth (+37.3s) despite struggling with his i20 N.

M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux completed the top five (+41.6s) ahead of Takamoto Katsuta (+1m12.2s), Andreas Mikkelsen (1m39.1s) and Gregoire Munster (+1m57.3s).

Neuville enjoyed a strong start to the rally, making the most of the cleanest of the conditions, virtue of being first on the road.

Neuville blitzed the first pass of Krasic — Sosice 1 (23.63km) posting a time 6.6s faster than nearest rival and title contender Evans, who was next on the road.

While Neuville’s time proved to be a standout effort, he wasn’t overly happy at the stage end reporting «hell of a lot of understeer» from his i20N, one of three Hyundais carrying a tribute livery to late team-mate Craig Breen.

As every car passed through the stage, more dirt was dragged onto the road surface which contributed to slower times from the chasing pack. Starting sixth on the road, Ogier managed to set the third fastest time, 14.5s adrift, but admitted «it was impossible to match» Neuville’s time.

The Frenchman reached the stage end with a slow puncture.

Tanak ceded 17.8s as he struggled with the worsening conditions and a nervous i20 N, while Fourmaux was fifth quickest (+20.4s) despite battling overheating tyres.

An unhappy Katsuta dropped 36.4s, reporting issues with his stage information, while Mikkelsen overshot a junction which contributed to his 50.7s time loss.

WRC2 runner Nikolay Gryazin grabbed an early class lead after clocking a time quicker than M-Sport Rally1 driver Munster, who was ninth on the timing screen.

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

Evans responded to Neuville’s stunning opening stage time by winning stage two — Jaskovo — Mali Modrus Potok 1 (9.48km). The Toyota driver managed to navigate through the narrow roads 1.7s faster than Neuville, decreasing the latter’s overall lead to 4.9s.

Tanak came through the test third fastest (2.4s) despite admitting his i20 N «was not really working» and was «difficult to drive».

Fourmaux dropped 4.2s but was 0.6s quicker than Ogier, who ran wide while battling the increasingly dirty road conditions. The top eight were completed by Katsuta, Munster and Mikkelsen, the latter having continued to battle a nervous car.

By stage three, Neuville restored and extended his lead over Evans to 8.6s after setting the benchmark time on the first pass through Ravna Gora-Skrad (10.13km). Neuville took the stage win by 3.5s from Evans, with Ogier only a tenth further back despite facing a much dirtier road surface.

Fourmaux continued to grow in confidence to post the fourth best time, 4.9s faster than Tanak.

Crews encountered snow on the side of the road in the final stage of the loop (Platak 1 — 16.63 km), but crucially the road was dry.

Neuville once again topped the timing screen by 0.2s from the chasing Evans, but the Belgian admitted he was unable to push behind the wheel.

«It’s probably the cleanest stage. I can’t attack,» said Neuville, who took one hard and five soft tyres for the loop compared to Evans, three hard and three soft.

«I have to be so smooth and clean. There is no way for me to push, otherwise it doesn’t work. I would like to go faster!»

The stage proved to be the closest fought of the loop as Ogier clocked a time 0.3s slower than Neuville.

«It’s been a good run, we can be happy with our loop. We lost some ground, but hopefully better in the afternoon. Soft was definitely the wrong choice, I’m happy with my mixed choice,» said Ogier.

Tanak was again the best of the rest but was clearly struggling for confidence behind the wheel stating that «somehow we struggled more than in Monte Carlo» during his pass that was 7.2s slower than his pacesetting team-mate. He wasn’t the only Hyundai driver struggling as Mikkelsen was forced to fight his car through to the finish.

In WRC2, Citroen driver Gryazin opened up a 12.4s lead over team-mate Yohan Rossel.

The crews will take in a tyre fitting zone ahead of a second pass through the stages this afternoon, before returning to the Zagreb service park.

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