Having gone through the tarmac, ice and snow of the opening Monte Carlo Rally, the snowy Rally Sweden, and the highlands of Mexico, WRC is now back in Europe for the first tarmac rally of the season in Croatia. Rally Croatia is not very familiar to us as it newly joined the WRC for 2021. However, it started under the name of Delta Rally in 1974, when it was part of the Yugoslav Federation, and its history is by no means short. It survived upheavals such as the death of Yugoslav ruler Josip Broz Tito (1980), the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the Croatian War of Independence. And finally it became part of the ERC (European Rally Championship) since 2007. And in 2021, as Croatia finally became the 34th country to host the WRC, it became the tarmac rally to fill the void after the Tour de corse in Germany and France left.
Twenty stages (SS) in Croatia this year totaled 301.26 km, similar to last year. Drivers who have been through this place say without hesitation that Croatia is the most demanding rally. A country road near the Slovenian border west of its capital, Zagreb, boasts its exquisite beauty. However, much of the narrow roads are broken, and the grip is low, making it quite slippery even in dry weather. The road surface becomes very dirty in the afternoon as the cars ahead scoop up the dirt around the corners. Moreover, even the weather is ever-changing, making it difficult to choose the right tire.
Even though the driving speed is high, much of the road surface is damaged, so tire maintenance is also important. Pirelli, the tire supplier, provided two tarmac compounds (hard/soft) and its new wet-road Cinturato RWB for wet roads for the Friday’s race, anticipating that the tire management will be the key to success.
On April 13, a week before the Rally Croatia, the faculties and racing fans around the world were shocked by the heartbreaking news. Hyundai’s Craig Breen (Craig Breen), who was on a test drive, passed away in an accident. A young Irishman born in 1990, Breen has been a member of Citroën, M-Sport Ford and Hyundai, among which he performed best while at Hyundai (2019-2021). And this season, he returned to Hyundai and finished second in Sweden, raising expectations. He was sharing the team’s third Hyundai i20 N Rally 1 with his teammate Dani Sordo, and was also a participant of WRC Vodafone Rally de Portugal.
In response to the accident, Breen’s family, Hyundai, and his co-driver, James Fulton, considered giving up Rally Croatia, but eventually agreed to go ahead. Instead, the team has decided not to use its third car, which Breen was scheduled to drive.
Hyundai Motorsport Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul said: “After careful consideration involving all stakeholders, we have decided to participate in Croatia Rally. We will do this in memory of Craig, to honor him, his passion for rallying and his competitive spirit. We will enter two cars and withdraw the third entry as a mark of respect.Both cars will run with a special livery for Craig, his family, friends and fans.It is clear from speaking to everyone that the best way to honor Craig’s legacy was not to withdraw our entry, so we participate mindful of our lost team-mate, friend and incredible competitor.”
So Hyundai had only two players, Thierry Neuville and Esapekka Lappi. The car also prepared a special livery (painting). With cars painted in the colors of the Irish flag - green, white and orange - it reminds any rally fan of Breen. In addition, his name was engraved on every corner of the car. The FIA also decided not to use his entry number 42 in the WRC this year.
Neuville is currently second in Drivers’ Championship points; He is chasing Sebastien Ogier, who is in the lead. Lappi has not yet been on the podium since moving to the Hyundai team. He has led in both Sweden and Mexico before eventually retiring, so he needs to regain his confidence first. Four drivers signed up to race for Toyota: Ogier, Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta. However, to show empathy to the Hyundai team, only two drivers (Rovanpera and Ogier) are responsible for the championship points. In Rally 1, three drivers from each team can take on the role of earning points, and two of them can use their points. It was only natural that they chose Ogier, the eight-time champion, and Rovanpera, the defending champion who also won last year’s Croatian championship.
M-Sport Ford had only two drivers, Ott Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet. Last year, Hyundai’s Tanak battled Rovanpera in a bloody battle to the finish in Croatia. Loubet has been having a rough time in recent races as well. There were only eight cars on the Rally 1 entry for this race, the fewest this season.
On Friday 21st April at 8am, the race started on the same opening stage as last year (Mali Lipovec to Grdanjci). The day’s race was held on the 130.18km-long SS1~SS8 where four stages were repeated in the morning and afternoon. The weather, not knowing when it might rain, made tire planning difficult. Some drivers chose wet tires, but it wasn’t a good idea.
On the 19.2km-long opening course that winds through beautiful mountains and villages, Ogier rose to the overall lead. On the 25.67km-long SS2 (Stojdraga to Hartje), the longest of the races, the tire problems Pirelli described immediately hit the racers. Toyota’s Ogier and Rovanpera lost time due to flat tires, and Neuville emerged as the overall leader. Ogier even received a one-minute penalty for a seatbelt violation.
Of course, not everything went well for Neuville. At the end of the stage, his car crashed into an obstacle and he broke his bumper, making his car’s aerodynamic balance worse. Nonetheless, he maintained his pace for the remainder of the morning and continued to lead. Fortunately, he was not penalized for leaving the chicane (a serpentine curve in a road, added by design). After Ogier and Rovanpera got flat tires, Evans, who was leading the Toyota, would go after Neuville.
At the end of Friday, Neuville continued to lead the race. Neuville tried several settings on this day, but the results were not satisfactory. Evans, who was 16 seconds behind Neuville by morning, gradually closed the gap, and by the end of SS8 the gap was only 5.7 seconds. Tanak suffered steering problems all morning and was chased by Lappi. Lappi once marked the top on SS6, but again overtaken by Tanak on SS7 and came back on third. Lappi finished Friday in 4th overall, 3.4 seconds behind Tanak. Behind them were Ogier and Katsuta with a gap of more than 50 seconds, with Loubet and Rovanpera in 7th and 8th respectively.
On Saturday, April 22nd, racers competed on the 116.6km-long SS9 to SS16. On this day as well, the 4 stages were repeated twice in the morning and afternoon. On the 23.76km-long opening stage (from Kostanjevac to Petruš Vrh), with Rovanpera fastest, Neuville widened his time gap with Evans by 4.8 seconds. At SS9, he was 0.3 seconds faster than Evans, increasing the time difference to 10.8 seconds.
In the following SS11(from Ravna Gora to Skrad), Neuville’s car oversteered while entering the right corner, forcing him to give up the race. The speed was not very fast when entering, but the concrete pipe on the road and the slightly late braking caused fatal damage to his car. This was bad news for both Hyundai and Neuville, who were looking to win the trophy for Breen.
As Neuville retired, Evans naturally took over the lead, with Tanak second and Lappi third. Evans kept a steady pace despite Tanak’s pursuit, widening the gap with him. The time difference between the two at the start of Saturday (24.3 seconds) decreased to 12.5 seconds on SS14, where Tanak marked the top time, then widened again to 25.4 seconds by the end of SS16. Meanwhile, Tanak’s car had problems with the handbrake.
Loubet, fourth overall in the morning, was unable to stop Ogier. Ogier had two flat tires on Friday and despite being handed a 10-second penalty for being late to fix his car on Saturday morning, he marked 4th overall after he went past Loubet by the end of SS13. And finally, on Saturday, Evans finished the race in the lead. Tanak kept second and Lappi third. The top three drivers were far apart from each other, and Ogier in fourth was more than a minute away. However, Rovanpera was only 2 seconds behind Ogier, with Katsuta and Loubet in 7th and 8th respectively. WRC2’s Yohan Rossel, Nikolay Gryazin and Emil Lindholm scored for their team as they finished 9th and 10th.
Sunday, April 23 at 7:00 AM, at SS17 (from Trakošćan to Vrbno), the final winner was to be decided in the four 54.48km-long stages. As Rovanpera marked the top on the opening stage, he went past Ogier to move up to fourth. And Evans widened his gap with Tanak to 30.5 seconds. In the following SS18 (from Zagorska Sela to Kumrovec), Neuville, who returned from his own retirement, boasted the fastest record. The only thing left for him, who had few chances to score, was the power stage. He finished with full speed on the SS18, which is also the SS20 power stage.
Unlike Evans, Tanak, and Lappi, who secured their spots on the podium, Rovanpera and Ogier’s fight for fourth place continued fiercely until the very end. Evans claimed his first win of the season, winning the Rally Croatia. Tanak and Lappi took 2nd and 3rd respectively. It was Lappi’s first podium finish of the season after moving to Hyundai, and also scored a point on the power stage. He struggled to find a good setup throughout the race, but delivered good performances at crucial moments. Neuville was out of the scoring zone after Friday’s unfortunate accident. However, the top time on the power stage earned him five points.
In the drivers’ championship points table, Neuville fell to fifth behind Evans, Rovanpera and Tanak, who managed to score. But this wasn’t too critical for his team; Toyota designated the scoring drivers as Rovanpera and Ogier, not Evans. So, the gap with leading Toyota increased by only 2 points. WRC Round 5 will be held in Portugal from May 11 to 14. Boasting history and tradition, Portugal’s Gravel Rally takes place on tricky dirt roads at the mountain ridges. It is also known as being the world’s best rally for five times.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
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