Метка: Thierry Neuville

Neuville wants more Hyundai WRC seat time to prepare for Latvia, Finland

World Rally Championship points leader Thierry Neuville is keen for a national rally outing or extra seat time to help prepare for upcoming fast gravel rallies in Latvia and Finland.

Neuville revealed his desire for more time behind the wheel of his Rally1 i20 N after his points lead over Toyota’s Elfyn Evans decreased from 18 to 15 points during a frustrating Rally Poland last week. 

The Belgian has previously found fast gravel rallies difficult, but last year made significant progress on those types of roads, highlighted by second-place finishes in Estonia and Finland.

However, Neuville admitted that he struggled with new engine mapping on his i20 N in Poland on top of the disadvantage of starting first on the road. As a result, he finished fourth overall, picking up 14 points.

«On Saturday I missed two extra points by one tenth [to Rally1 debutant Martins Sesks] and on Sunday I missed an extra point by three tenths [to Evans], so it is really frustrating,» Neuville told Motorsport.com after collecting six points on Saturday, three on Sunday and five in the Power Stage.

«We came here with new engine maps, and I didn’t feel comfortable since the beginning with it, so I lost some time.

«And I was cleaning the road, so a lot of things came together basically.»

With testing restricted to 21 days per manufacturer across a year, Neuville is seeking opportunities for more outings behind the wheel.

Thierry Neuville, Hyundai World Rally Team

Thierry Neuville, Hyundai World Rally Team

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

The testing limit set by the FIA is designed to cut costs, but teams have circumvented the restrictions by fielding cars into national rallies outside of the WRC calendar.

Hyundai has already taken this approach this season when Andreas Mikkelsen contested an asphalt rally in Alba, Italy in April, while Ott Tanak is set to drive the i20 N Rally1 in an invitational class at Rally Estonia next week.

«I would like to [do a private rally], and I will definitely ask my team for an opportunity to drive before the next rally,» added Neuville.

«My last time testing in Finland [at Hyundai’s test base] was on snow in February. The second last test was cancelled and the other one, was only for Andreas and Ott.

«I definitely need more seating time on those fast roads.»

Hyundai’s WRC programme manager Christian Loriaux says the team will look into Neuville’s request.

«It is not in the plan at the moment, but there is always a chance, but we will have to look into it,» he told Motorsport.com

«Budgets are not infinity, and we need time and the test car available. But for sure it is not to be excluded.»

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Hyundai call to retire Tanak in Rally Poland was a “mistake”

World Rally Championship points leader Thierry Neuville believes it was a mistake for Hyundai to retire Ott Tanak’s car after stage 12 at Rally Poland.

Hyundai elected to retire Tanak’s i20 N after Saturday morning’s loop to prepare to challenge for the 12 points on offer on Super Sunday.

The decision came with Tanak already out of the fight for victory and Saturday points after an unavoidable collision with a deer forced him to retire from stage two on Friday.

Tanak rejoined the rally on Saturday morning acting as road sweeper and another car ahead of Neuville and team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen in the road order.  

With Tanak absent from the afternoon stages, Neuville moved up a spot in the road order. The Belgian, who made a small error in stage 15, ultimately ended the day finishing fifth, 0.1s behind Rally1 debutant Martins Sesks, and lost two championship points in the process.  

“It was definitely not a help for us, that’s for sure,” Neuville told Motorsport.com when asked about the decision to retire Tanak.

“I mean, each car you can have in front cleaning the road is an advantage, especially in a championship fight where every single point really counts. I think it was a mistake, but this is what it is.

“It could have been valuable kilometres as well for the car, trying different things without any question.”

Cyril Abiteboul, Team principal Hyundai World Rally Team

Cyril Abiteboul, Team principal Hyundai World Rally Team

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul explained the rationale behind the decision.

“The thinking is that with the current regulation of the super rally and we were so far behind that there was absolutely nothing to gain,” Abiteboul told Motorsport.com.

“We started [Ott] in the morning because we wanted to do a proper shakedown of the car after the repair.

“We also wanted to give a bit of relief to Thierry by having an extra car doing a bit of cleaning in the morning when it mattered, but in the afternoon obviously the benefits are lower, and it was very clear that, you know, nothing would be happening that would really help Ott in the championship or in or in the starting order for tomorrow.

“So, when that is the case, we prefer to get the crew to recover a bit and focus on the preparation for Sunday, because that has to be for him the biggest charge.”

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Loss of concentration caused WRC Sardinia crash

The WRC points leader was sitting third heading into stage eight [Tula], the final test of the morning loop, when he went off the road and into retirement.

Neuville’s i20 N carried too much speed into a tight right-hander, which resulted in his car becoming beached at the side of the road. Neuville, co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe, and his car emerged from the incident unscathed.

When asked to explain the incident, the Belgian admitted he lost concentration for a “fraction of a second” while thinking about a particular corner.

“I lost concentration for a fraction of a second in the stage, and basically when I realised it was a tight corner it was when I saw the corner,” said Neuville.

“It was too late, and I realised immediately it would be difficult to make the hairpin and we got stuck in the ditch.

“It was simply a left, over crest where in the morning I thought I was a bit slow. It stuck in my mind that I had to go faster, and the next corner was just behind, and I was still accelerating.

“I was not concentrating on what was coming.

“We were working hard, and we did a big part of the job yesterday.

“Today we were driving on a good rhythm with a good feeling and everything was working fine and there was no alarm at all.”

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

In the wake of the incident, Neuville’s team-mate Dani Sordo questioned the risk that the Belgian was taking.

“I see Thierry and I was really disappointed,” remarked the Spaniard. Honestly, I don’t know why he needs to take this amount of risk.”

Neuville is set to rejoin the rally on Sunday, with the aim of trying to score the maximum 12 points on offer under the new-for-2024 points system.

“Tomorrow there is still 12 points to take,” he added.

“The car has been working since the beginning of the year and I feel very comfortable in it, and we are able to go fast, so tomorrow we need to do the job.”

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Inside Hyundai’s rally-meets-Nurburgring challenge

‘Three left minus, long, bumpy’, may resemble an ordinary rally pacenote. But this is how a World Rally Championship driver sees one of motorsport’s most famous corners – the Karussell at the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

Yes, you have read that correctly. You could be forgiven to question ‘what kind of fever dream am I about to read?’ That’s a totally valid response, but this was by no means a dream. To test its WRC title-leading crew Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport set a unique rally-meets-race circuit challenge.

The pair were tasked to drive the 73-turn Nurburgring Nordschleife but to pacenotes, as if it were a rally stage, behind the wheel of a TCR-spec race-prepared touring car. Motorsport.com was invited to follow the crews and witness the art of pacenote making first-hand for an insight into how a rally crew operates outside their comfort zone.

The undulating and relentless 20.8-kilometre ribbon of asphalt nestled in Germany’s Eifel mountains is perhaps the only renowned permanent circuit that can mimic a rally stage, barring Australia’s Mount Panorama or even Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps.

The latter has even featured as part of a WRC event — the 2021 Ypres Rally — which marked the first of seven rally wins to date since Neuville and Wydaeghe joined forces. But Spa and Monza — the latter appearing on the calendar during the WRC’s 2020 and 2021 COVID-19-affected seasons — are the only world-famous circuits to have graced the WRC calendar in recent years. Taking on the Nurburgring as a rally stage is therefore an unusual task.

“[The Nordschleife] is one of the most challenging circuits, a bit like Rally Finland but on Tarmac,” Neuville tells Motorsport.com. “That is what I can compare it to. There are similarities in the pacenotes too!”

Two days after finishing third on Croatia’s WRC asphalt stages, Neuville and Wydaeghe swapped the narrow roads for the expanses of the Nurburgring and traded their Hyundai i20 N Rally1 car for a Hyundai i30 N TCR. For Neuville, the Nordscheife is a venue that holds childhood trackside memories watching the Nurburgring 24 Hours. But tackling the Green Hell as if it’s a WRC rally stage was an altogether new experience.

Hyundai's rally crew treated their Nurburgring pacenotes as they would for any rally stage

Hyundai’s rally crew treated their Nurburgring pacenotes as they would for any rally stage

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

How do you make pacenotes for the Nordschleife?

While navigating the Nordschleife’s 73 turns is quite removed from belting through a Finnish forest, Neuville and Wydaeghe treated it exactly as they would a WRC rally stage. As a result, the first task is to undergo a recce.

For those unaware of the process driver and co-driver undertake before any rally, a recce features the crews piloting a road car through the stage at road speed. It is here where pacenotes are made; these determine the speed and angle of a corner, as well as any additional information the co-driver can alert to the driver to help the pair pass through a stage at the fastest speed possible.

“The recce is one of the most important parts of our job,” says Neuville. “We are allowed to run a stage twice during the recce to make our pacenotes, which is basically our description of the road we are going to drive. This is very important information that the drivers trust from the co-driver that is giving the pacenotes. As you can imagine, if the pacenotes are too slow or too fast, it is very hard to find confidence and it is very hard to go fast.

“At asphalt rallies we are driving to tenths so the pacenotes are the key factor to go fast”
Thierry Neuville

“Rallies like Finland where we are limited to 70km/h [on the recce] and in the rally itself, you are driving close to 200km/h for most of the time, it makes it very difficult to judge the speed you can go; depending on the angle of the corner and the variation of grip, or if it is over a crest or through a dip, or the corner is hanging a bit to the outside or the inside.

“All those parameters have a big influence on the actual speed you can go. This is only possible [to achieve] with a lot of training, and you have to know your car really.”

For this recce, Motorsport.com joined Neuville and Wydaeghe perched on the back seat of a road-going Hyundai i30 N to see how they go about the task of making pacenotes. The first aspect that is made abundantly clear is the level of teamwork required.

The onus is on Neuville to instantly read the road and communicate that to Wydaeghe, who scribbles down the information, in pencil, into a pacenote book. The use of pencil is important as it allows changes to be made if required when all of this information is analysed and compared against onboard videos of the stage – a process that is usually conducted in the evenings before the stage is run.

Neuville's memory proves a key element in his pacenotes

Neuville’s memory proves a key element in his pacenotes

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

To add an extra level of complexity, the pair were using English pacenotes instead of their usual French as Wydaeghe explains while Neuville sweeps through Flugplatz: “Normally we are using a system in the French language, but that is hard for everyone to understand, so today we are making pacenotes in English. It is a basic system that everyone knows from the rally computer games. We are using a 1-6 system where six is the fastest, so we have the number of the corner, the direction left or right and the length of the corner.

“We normally have a very specific system, and we are the only ones using this system in the WRC. It is a system of 10-170 based on speed actually. We also have the length of the corner built into the pacenotes, so for example this [corner we are approaching] could be left 130, tightens 80 for example. So it is a left that goes more or less at 130kph over 30 metres and tightens to 80kph.”

Neuville interjects: “[The system] was something I developed in 2013; basically I came up with a different system. Going from slower to faster cars, I needed something simpler. Talking about speed is the easiest for everyone to understand.”

Wydaeghe continues the explanation: “He [Thierry] has a good memory by the way. Thierry tries to imagine at what speed he can pass. It is really important to write everything down as quick as possible, so Thierry can carry on his speed during the recce. If I cannot follow and we need to slow down all the time, we are breaking our own recce speed. It is then difficult for him to continue to imagine the speed of the next corners.”

Witnessing this process in action, it’s quite clear that this is a science that takes years to perfect. If a recce doesn’t go to plan, it can quite easily have an adverse effect on a crew’s performance at a rally.

If you want find out more about Thierry and Martijn, listen to a special edition of the Gravel Notes podcast where the duo discuss their first rally memories, how they work together as driver and co-driver and how they unwind away from the stages.


“If the recce is done wrong and I come to a corner where it is a three and I have put a one, then I could drive the corner much faster,” Neuville confirms. “After that, my stage time would be bad. At asphalt rallies, we are driving to tenths, so the pacenotes are the key factor to go fast.”

As we reach the end of the lap, the iconic banked Karussell is navigated. Neuville definitively calls one of motor racing’s most famous corners as a three left minus, long, bumpy. As the final straight comes into view, Wydaeghe puts his pencil down. The lap is complete. However, this is only the start of the process to prepare for a rally stage. But first, what is it like for a co-driver to make pacenotes around the Nordschleife?

Autosport got a first-hand view of how pacenotes are constructed

Motorsport.com got a first-hand view of how pacenotes are constructed

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

“The road is very smooth and very wide, so it is very comfortable for me to sit in this recce car to write pacenotes,” explains Wydaeghe. “For example, in Kenya, it is very bumpy and my pacenote book is hard to read as you are moving around a lot. Today was an easy game!

“But still, you have some nice profiles going up and down and sometimes you have some more twisty parts where there is a corner into another corner, and then another corner. It is quite wide, but this is something you could have in Rally de Catalunya for example.”

Pacenotes written, the crew now has to analyse them alongside the onboard video recorded from GoPro cameras attached to the car. This process is normally conducted in a hotel room, but today it’s a swift trip to Nurburgring’s Devil’s Diner that overlooks the circuit, where a laptop is whipped out and analysis begins. This is where any changes to the notes can be made in the pursuit of perfection that can result in valuable tenths of seconds.

“After recce we watch the videos, and we try to optimise [the pacenotes],” confirms Neuville. “Sometimes we will take out some information we don’t need, or if it is too much information, we simplify the notes. Sometimes we change the angle and the speed of the corner.

“I realised when I stepped into the WRC and the speed is so high and on bumpy roads, it is easy to get lost in the notes. So, I write big”
Martijn Wydaeghe

“With only two recce passes sometimes, it is hard to make the perfect note and it is important to do the fine-tuning to find the little adjustments, which helps you to go faster.”

Wydaeghe continues: “We analyse our first pass on the video to get it to perfection for the second pass to find some extra speed here and there. The second pass through stages can be completely different, with stones coming through the road and so on, so we need to add this into the pacenotes as well. If you don’t write them with pencil, it would be a mess to read everything.

“Before I was with Thierry, I was doing rallies in slower cars and I was writing much smaller. But then I realised when I stepped into the WRC and the speed is so high and on bumpy roads, it is easy to get lost in the notes. So, I write big — but it is still a challenge to get it right all the time.”

Time to tackle the Nordschleife at speed

Now it’s time for Neuville and Wydaeghe to put all their work into action as they climb aboard the race-prepared 350 horsepower i30 N TCR, a vehicle Neuville raced in TCR Germany in 2019.

Neuville and Wydaeghe tackle the Nurburgring aboard a 350hp Hyundai TCR car

Neuville and Wydaeghe tackle the Nurburgring aboard a 350hp Hyundai TCR car

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

While this is a downgrade in terms of power compared to their more familiar 500-horsepower i20 N WRC Rally1 car, driving to pacenotes at ten-tenths around the Nordschleife’s 73 turns can never be underestimated. A day’s work ultimately boils down to approximately eight minutes as Neuville and Wydaeghe don their open-face helmets, plug in their intercom and complete a flying lap of the Nurburgring in the style of a rally.

“It’s been a beautiful experience,” says Neuville. “I was trusting my memory and relying on the pacenotes in the places I was not 100% sure, and it works. I’m sure it is going to help me remember the track even better because I’m not a specialist here. It was a great experience to be back in the TCR car even if it was only for a few laps here is something special. I will do more once I retire from rallying.”

From the co-driver seat, Wydaeghe says: “It was much more comfortable than being in a gravel stage in the WRC, it was really smooth and you have a lot of long corners and a lot of distance in between the corners as well compared to the normal rally stages. If you compare with the Tarmac rallies on the WRC like Monte Carlo and Japan, there it is corner into corner, it was a bit more relaxed for me let’s say. It was just magic to do something like this on this circuit.”

While Neuville and Wydaeghe took this challenge in their stride, the pair impressed Nurburgring 24 Hours veteran Marcus Willhardt. He’s conducted thousands of laps around the revered asphalt as a driving instructor, but never to pacenotes and admits he found himself “wondering if they can trust in it”.

“I would not be comfortable after two recce laps, that is very strange for me,” Willhardt tells Motorsport.com. “I think they have the hardest job. I love racing but I would never go on a rally stage, I would be too afraid. These guys are totally crazy. The confidence they have and the trust they have in their car and themselves is amazing.”

The Nordschleife is unlikely to join a round of the WRC as a stage anytime soon, but this experiment once again outlines the enormity of work undertaken by rally crews before any stage can be tackled at pace. It’s a meticulous, albeit incredibly important process to unlock the vital tenths of seconds that ultimately decide rallies.

Thousands of petrolheads make the pilgrimage to the Nordschleife to test their mettle around its famous curves and no doubt they would most definitely benefit from pacenotes. Perhaps Wydaeghe could have inadvertently stumbled upon a business opportunity?

“That’s a good idea actually [selling the notes], you [Motorsport.com] can take a 5% cut,” Wydaeghe jokes.

Being able to see much more of the road ahead of him than normal was a welcome change for Wydaeghe

Being able to see much more of the road ahead of him than normal was a welcome change for Wydaeghe

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

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Neuville stunned by almost “impossible” result in WRC Rally Portugal

The Hyundai driver had downplayed chances of a strong result in the first event of the WRC’s traditional gravel season given the disadvantage of opening the gravel roads on Friday.

An impressive performance on Friday, which included a stunning stage win on Arganil, limited the time loss to 18.1s to keep the Belgian firmly in the fight.

Neuville was able to steadily climb the leaderboard to sit third, claiming 13 points, heading into the final day having been assisted by retirements for rally leader Kalle Rovanpera and Takamoto Katsuta, who held third.

To cap off the display Neuville finished second in the Super Sunday standings and won the Power Stage to claim 24 points, 18 more than title rival Evans, who endured a difficult rally.

“Nobody expected us to be on the podium here actually and to increase the lead in the championship was nearly impossible,” Neuville told Motorsport.com.

“But somehow, we made it with a strong Friday run and then after that, we were consistent yesterday and we pushed hard today for those extra points which have made the difference.

“It is quite a margin [in the championship] but you can see how easy it is to lose points with Elfyn having problems today. I mean if somebody has a good run on Friday and Saturday and you have problems on Sunday and he scores the 12 points, he can take back some of the gap, so consistency is going to be important.”

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Evans was fortunate to salvage six points from the event after a stone damaged his cooling system which required the Welshman to limp to the end of the penultimate stage in EV mode before undergoing a roadside repair.

This ended any hopes of securing any Super Sunday points leaving Evans with six points acquired from finishing sixth at the end of Saturday. Evans started the rally on the backfoot as he struggled for confidence with the balance of his GR Yaris.

The Toyota driver then had to drive to pacenotes being delivered from a mobile phone after co-driver Scott Martin accidentally left his pacenote book at the stage six time control. The misfortune was compounded by a puncture in stage seven.

“The six points is the only positive. Of course, you want to forget the weekend, but we have to learn from it and be ready for the next one,” Evans told Motorsport.com.

“It is still early in the season. It is not what you hope for, and we obviously have to aim for some strong rallies and see what is possible.

“It is definitely the case that anything can happen at any point of the season. For sure, 24 points seems big now, but it can turn around very quickly.”

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Neuville tames Super Special to claim early lead

The Hyundai driver managed to navigate through the 2.94km beachside asphalt stage, 0.6s faster than nearest rival Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier.

Without a service before tomorrow morning’s gravel stages, crews were forced to tackle the spectator test in tyre saving mode to protect rubber for Friday’s stages.

“It is difficult weekend ahead of us [starting first on the gravel roads tomorrow]. We tried to be clean and I don’t know if it was too much or not,” said Neuville.

“I don’t want be the one who brings down the great atmosphere we have here but a stage like this with donuts and 70 kilometres ahead of us with the same tyres is absolutely nonsense.

“There are lots of spectators around and I hope they saw something, but I think we can do much better.”

Ogier was among a chorus of drivers who shared Neuville’s view on the positioning of the stage in the itinerary.

“I tried to [be easy on the tyres]. I’m sure everyone has said that is not clever to ask us to do a tarmac stage where we have to drive slow and not make a show,” said Ogier.

“This kind of stage has to be at the end of a loop, then we come here and we kill the gravel tyres and the fans love it.”

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and Hyundai’s Ott Tanak posted identical times to slot into tied third, 0.4s ahead of reigning world champion Kalle Rovanpera, who clearly adopted a tyre saving driving style.

M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux was sixth fastest [+3.1s] and will head into tomorrow’s stages having gambled on taking only one spare wheel.

“Sometimes you need to take risks to gain some time,” said Fourmaux of his tyre choice. “To be fair we are quite confident with our tyre choice, and we are just trying to save the tyres tonight. I’m third on the road so I’m not expecting much tyre wear tomorrow.”

Seven-time Portugal podium finisher Dani Sordo, making his first start of the season, was seventh for Hyundai [+4.1s], ahead of title contender Toyota’s Elfyn Evans [+4.3s], who was among those that attempted to save his rubber.

In WRC2, Yohan Rossel set the pace, 1.1s faster than five-time WRC rally winner Kris Meeke, competing in a rare outing in rallying’s top championship. Oliver Solberg was third in class, a further 0.5s in arrears.

The rally continues on Friday with eight gravel stages scheduled, punctuated by a tyre fitting zone at midday.

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WRC Croatia not a “disaster” after final day error

The Hyundai driver took a 4.9s lead into the final day after winning nine of the 16 stages up to that point, in what was an intense battle with Toyota’s Elfyn Evans.

However, both Neuville and Evans hit trouble in stage 18 on Sunday morning, which effectively ended the pair’s victory hopes.

Neuville drifted into a grass bank following a late pacenote call, costing him 23.3s while causing significant damage to the i20N’s rear wing that left him unable to fight in the remaining two stages.

While frustrated at missing an opportunity to score perhaps one of his finest victories, Neuville was happy to match rival Evans in scoring 19 points and maintain his six-point championship.

“Definitely there is a frustration but on the other hand we have been well rewarded yesterday after our great drive on Friday and Saturday [to score 18 points] and they were important points and they have made the difference,” Neuville told Motorsport.com.

“Despite not scoring many points today we were still the third best performer and equal with Evans and only lost one point to Ott [Tanak]. We can’t say it was a disaster.

“The stage [where we crashed] was really tricky but what happened, happened. I tried my best to avoid it, but we were just far too late and when I got the pacenote I immediately hit the brakes, but the corner was so much tighter and there was nothing I could do.

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: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

“It [the car] was undrivable [without the rear wing], I couldn’t expect it, but it was a disaster. I was driving fast on the last stage and I lost 30 seconds.”

Although happy to lead the championship, Neuville expects a tough battle to hold onto his advantage when the WRC returns to gravel, beginning with Portugal next month.    

“I’m happy to still be in the lead and happy to keep at least our advantage because it is no secret that from Portugal onwards it is going to be tough for us with several gravel rallies in a row,” he added.

“Without really heavy rain or different circumstances, it will be tough for us to score many points on Friday and Saturday but Sunday could be a bit better if we have a better road position.”

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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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Neuville, Evans tied for WRC Croatia lead «something special»

Hyundai’s Neuville and Toyota driver Evans incredibly clocked identical overall times to sit tied for the lead on Friday night after 119.74 competitive stage kilometres.

Neuville claimed three of the four morning stages on the way to opening up a 10.1-second lead over Evans until a puncture on stage six cost the Belgian valuable time.

Evans moved into a 1.6s lead before Neuville responded on the final test to match Evans at the top of the leaderboard.

While the top two couldn’t be separated on times, only 6.6s covered the top three following Sebastien Ogier’s stunning victory on stage eight.

The hard-fought battle has arrived while the championship’s future is firmly in the spotlight as discussions continue among the teams and the FIA to resolve next year’s Rally1 technical regulations.

The FIA wishes to remove hybrid power and decrease the performance of the cars through a reduction in aero and the air restrictor, although these proposed changes have been strongly opposed by the teams.

Asked about the battle for the rally victory, Latvala told Autosport: “It is exciting. In the morning it was looking like it was going to be a tough day for us because Thierry was so strong on the first stage, and I thought our chances were not going to be so great.

“But the drivers improved over the day and eventually having exactly the same time with Thierry and Elfyn is something special.”

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: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

Hyundai’s WRC programme manager Christian Loriaux added: “It shows the World Rally Championship is exciting and it is close, and it is worth existing, that is for sure. It [Thierry and Elfyn sharing the lead] is quite amazing.”

Evans is among a group of drivers keen for the current Rally1 regulations to remain in place next year and believes the close battle is proof the technical formula works.

“It is good. We know that the technical formula has worked for many years now and the cars and the battles are always close — like I’ve always said, that side works,” Evans told Autosport.

Reflecting on his own performance across the eight stages, Evans felt he left some time on the table, particularly in the final stage, but ultimately was satisfied with his Friday showing.

“There were quite a few things [we could have done better], but overall, it was still quite a good day,” he said.

“I was disappointed with the last stage as I think there was time left in there.

“I think the third stage I was a bit too careful in a few places, but you have to try and find that balance in those conditions to get to the end and go quickly.”

Although the pacesetter for much of Friday, assisted by a road position advantage, Neuville admitted that he had “to give everything” to recover the lost ground after the puncture, and tame his i20 N.

“I mean it was definitely a good fight out there,” said Neuville. “We had to give everything in every stage.

“We are in the lead equal with Elfyn but we lost important seconds this afternoon with our puncture and I was just generally struggling a bit with the balance of the car.

“It got a bit better toward the end of the day, but the last stage was massive dust, so there was lots of cleaning and there was not much more we could have done.”

The rally continues on Saturday although rain showers are expected to add to the challenge for the crews.

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