Elfyn Evans is verging on a long-elusive FIA World Rally Championship victory after seizing the Croatia Rally lead in Saturday’s penultimate leg.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver assumed control of the gruelling asphalt event early in the day when Thierry Neuville, who had led by 5.7sec on Friday evening, crashed into retirement on the second stage.
Neuville’s Hyundai i20 N stepped out of line and collided with a concrete block which caused severe damage to the wheel and suspension components. His exit handed Evans a healthy lead of 22.6sec at the day’s halfway point.
The dynamic changed when Ott Tänak cranked up the heat after service in Croatian capital Zagreb, slashing Evans’ buffer by almost half with two stages remaining. However, the Estonian was impeded by a technical fault which cost valuable time late in the day and ended 25.4sec back from the lead.
A victory for Evans, should he succeed in keeping Tänak at bay, would be his first since the 2021 Secto Rally Finland over 18 months ago.
“If Ott had problems, I wouldn’t wish that on him,” the Welshman said. “It’s not nice to exploit a gap like that, but okay, there’s still a long way to go.”
Esapekka Lappi brought his Hyundai home a distant third overall despite lacking confidence in some of the gravel-polluted sections. A half spin in SS13 did not help matters although the Finn pressed harder in the afternoon and trailed Tänak by half a minute at close of play.
Sébastien Ogier started on the back foot having been handed a one-minute time penalty for a safety breach on Friday evening. He was then lumbered with a further 10-second sanction after a technical issue on the road section caused him to check in late to the first stage.
But the Yaris man, winner here in 2021, climbed from seventh to fourth overall after romping to three fastest stage times. Behind him were team-mates Kalle Rovanperä and Takamoto Katsuta, both of whom leapfrogged Pierre-Louis Loubet as he struggled to find traction on hard compound tyres.
Yohan Rossel remained in the lead of the WRC2 category and held eighth overall ahead of Nikolay Gryazin and Emil Lindholm, who completed the leaderboard.
Sunday’s finale north of Zagreb features the widest roads of the weekend. The opening Trakošćan – Vrbno (13.15km) starts close to a 13th century lakeside castle amid stunning scenery and is followed by Zagorska Sela – Kumrovec (14.09km). Both are driven twice, taking the day’s total to 54.48km.