World Rally Championship changes gear for Croatia debut

Paris (AFP) –


In another stop-start season with several diversions already to the calendar, the World Rally Championship (WRC) drives into new territory on Friday with the debut of the Croatia Rally.

After a two-month break, the competition returns on a very different surface.

Toyota's Kalle Rovanpera leads the standings after two events with Hyundai's Thierry Neuville second and Sebastian Ogier third, though level on points with his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans.

Frenchman Ogier, the reigning world champion, won the opener in Monte Carlo.

Estonian Ott Tanak was imperious in his Hyundai in the last race, the Arctic Rally on snow at the end of February.

The Croatia Rally offers a different challenge on roads the WRC website describes as "a tantalising mix of asphalt."

It is the first rally 100 per cent on tarmac since the German Rally in August 2019.

The rally is made up of 20 stages over 300.32 kilometres through the mountains around Zagreb.

"I think there are certain sections of the rally where you would like to have something like a racing car, very free and very hard set-up," Welshman Evans told the WRC website after winning Thursday's pre-race shakedown.

"But then of course there are sections in which you almost need a gravel car to be honest because it's so dirty."

Croatia becomes the 34th country to host a WRC rally

"It's like nothing else," said Tanak. "It's not going to be easy."

The course is windy and while that gives drivers a chance to cut corners, in some place the undergrowth is dense and the roads narrow.

"There are really a lot of curves," said Belgian Neuville.

"All the stages are different, some are fast, others very bumpy, especially on Saturday," when the drivers twice face a section near the Slovenian border nicknamed the "stage with a thousand bends".

At 20, Rovanpera is the youngest ever championship leader.

"I'm not feeling any pressure even though I'm leading the championship," said the Finn. "It's only been two rallies and we have a long season ahead. For sure it's nice to be in this position."

He is only 12 points ahed of Tanak in fifth.

"In terms of pure performance, I don't see a big gap between the five of us," said Ogier. "It's clearly possible that it will remain tight until the end."

After Croatia, the WRC will accelerate into the gravel section with four events scheduled by July 18, starting with the Portuguese Rally on May 20-23.

That makes victory this weekend a potentially mixed blessing because the championship leader has to open the road in the next race.

"Good luck to whoever is in the lead after Croatia," said Ogier. "On gravel, the first and second in the championship are likely to be eliminated from the battle by starting first."

"Asphalt offers a more level playing field," Ogier said.

"A victory is always better, but it would probably mean a lot of trouble afterwards.".