Belgian driver wows the crowds as all-new fixture begins in the Czech Republic.
Fan-favourite Thierry Neuville grabbed a slender overnight lead as the first-ever edition of Central European Rally got under way on Thursday.
Thousands of spectators descended on Czech capital Prague earlier today to witness the FIA World Rally Championship’s cars and stars flagged away by Czech President Petr Pavel. Two quickfire super special tests followed as the rally journeyed back into south-eastern Germany where the Passau service park is located.
Neuville, driving a Hyundai i20 N, was third-fastest through the opening stage at Cluchle’s horseracing arena but a benchmark time for Circuit of Klatovy saw the Belgian leapfrog M-Sport Ford Puma driver Ott Tänak to lead by 1.2sec overnight.
“It was not the greatest stage,” Neuville said of his run over the damp roads of SS2. “I think it was in between the wet and the soft [tyres], and I decided to go to the soft at the very last moment. The anti-cut [devices] were reflecting from the light so we couldn’t see very well, but we had a clean run through.”
Eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier reported that he “did not have a good feeling” aboard his Toyota GR Yaris but did enough to secure the final podium spot. He trailed Tänak by 4.6sec with team-mate Kalle Rovanperä, the championship leader, a single tenth behind.
Rovanperä could clinch his second consecutive WRC title this week, depending on how he fares against colleague Elfyn Evans. An overshoot for Evans left the Welshman 4.8sec behind the Finn in eighth overall.
Teemu Suninen, Takamoto Katsuta and Pierre-Louis Loubet were blanketed by 2.1sec in fifth, sixth and seventh overall, with Esapekka Lappi and Grégoire Munster completing the top 10.
Lappi would have been third were it not for the 10-second time penalty he received for a jump start on SS1, while Munster was slowed by handbrake failure on his Puma.
After an early start on Friday, it’s back out to the Czech Republic for six tricky tests amounting to a gruelling 121.80km against the clock with no opportunity for service.
Leading positions after Thursday:
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N 6m 6.9s
2. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Ford Puma +1.2s
3. S Ogier / V Landais FRA Toyota GR Yaris +5.8s
4. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +5.9s
5. T Suninen / M Markkula FIN Hyundai i20 N +8.3s
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +10.1s