Ogier takes shock lead as Neuville, Evans crash

Ogier started the morning 11.6 seconds adrift of Neuville but similar accidents for both Neuville and Evans have pushed the eight-time world champion into a 9.1s lead over Evans.

Evans and Neuville both reached the end of stage 18 with damaged cars — with the latter, who started the day leading by 4.9s, now dropping to third, 10.2s in arrears.

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak survived a moment in stage 18 to maintain fourth [+1m02.3s] while M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux handed fifth overall to Takamoto Katsuta [+1m57.1s]. Katsuta also leads the Super Sunday classification by 3.9s from Tanak.

Sunday morning began with a blast through the wide and open roads of stage 17 [Trakoscan-Vrbno, 13.15km] with the lead trio all opting for different tyre strategies to add extra intrigue to the victory battle. Rally leader Neuville selected one hard and four softs, while Evans chose three hards and two softs and Ogier opted for two hards and three softs.

Evans’ decision appeared to help the Welshman on the increasingly dirty road as the early runners dragged gravel onto the surface. The Toyota driver managed to take 2.3s out of leader Neuville to chop the deficit down to 2.6s with three stages remaining.

“I’m pretty surprised already, lots of pollution and quite slippery especially at the end of stage — overall quite good,” said Evans.

Neuville wasn’t overly concerned by Evans’ attack and felt confident his tyre decision would come back to him as the loop progressed.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

“We have different tyre choices, this one will be really dirty on the second pass,” said Neuville. “For the next one I think we have better tyres.

“It’s OK, it’s a dirty road in the morning and we lose a bit of time, but we’re going to push hard.”

Ogier struggled to find the feeling behind the wheel of his GR Yaris but was able to match Neuville’s time to remain 11.6s adrift of the leader.

The stage was won by Katsuta, who took an early lead in the Super Sunday classification. The Toyota driver was 1.8s faster than Fourmaux with Evans third fastest. Tanak was fourth quickest despite battling a stage he claimed was “full of gravel”.

But the rally was turned on its head in stage 18 [Zagorska Sela – Kumrovec, 14.24km] as Neuville, Evans and Fourmaux all hit trouble.

Fourmaux was the first to make an error as he clipped an anti-cut device, which damaged his front right. The M-Sport driver pulled off the road to fix the car and eventually reached the stage end after losing more than 16 minutes.

“After a corner I snapped the steering arm, sometimes it bends, sometimes it breaks,” said Fourmaux. “This time it breaks. We need to score some points today, so we need to regroup and look forward to the Power Stage.”

Tanak also had what he called “more than a moment” running off the road, on his way to winning the stage, but he fared much better than lead duo Evans and Neuville.

Evans clipped a bank with the left rear of his GR Yaris, which pitched the car into a spin, costing the Welshman a vital 19.6s.

“It was just a slippery place, hit the rear hard on the left and it just took off and spun the car unfortunately,” said Evans.

Minutes later, rally leader Neuville ran into a bank, this time with the right rear of his i20 N, resulting in damage to the front and rear wing. The Belgian, who dropped 23.3s to third overall, blamed the incident on a late pacenote.

“There was a lot of corners, when I got the pacenote it was far too late,” said Neuville. “We lost 20 seconds to Ogier so it’s a shame because everything was going well.”

Ogier was third fastest in the stage but inherited the lead ahead of a repeat of the morning stages, which will conclude the rally.

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