Almost two months have passed since the celebration of the second round of the World Rally Championship, the Arctic Rally Finland. This weekend the competition is back on with the maiden WRC Croatia Rally.
The third leg of the WRC calendar will be held from April 22 to 25 in the vicinity of the city of Zagreb, the country’s capital.
After the long break, the contestants will come head-to-head once again at an exciting and novel event, the first rally of the season to be held solely on asphalt. It is hoped that the overall lack of familiarity with the new location will make for a very level playing field.
A certain disquiet can be felt among the crews who lack any indication of how their machines might perform in a setting that has never hosted any first or even second level tests.
The challenge: Six different asphalt types
The Croatia Rally will be 300.32 kilometres long, divided into 20 special stages over the course of three days (Friday-Sunday). According to its organizers, it will also run over six different types of asphalt with varying levels of grip.
As if this didn’t complicate things enough, the route will have mountainous, narrow and technical sections aplenty, over deteriorated and wet tarmac, with no shortage of potholes or elevation changes.
The great duel in the Balkans: Toyota vs Hyundai
On the purely competitive front, a tough battle is expected between Hyundai Motorsport’s ‘magnificent five’ and Toyota GAZOO Racing, currently separated by just twelve points.
After witnessing Ott Tänak’s (Hyundai) exhibition on the snowy and icy roads of the Arctic Circle, his Japanese rivals are anxious to not be left behind on the title bid. A priori, the road surface could give the team from Jyvaskylä a slight advantage.
The 20-year-old Finn, Kalle Rovanperä enters the Croatia Rally as the youngest leader in history, after finishing second in his country’s round. This privileged position will mean he has to open the track on Friday, although, this doesn’t seem to be an obstacle for the young Scandinavian driver.
Along with Kalle, his two most outstanding teammates, Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans will be defending the colours of the Japanese works.
An accomplished asphalt specialist, the French six-time champion is one of the rivals to beat. Ogier is currently third in the standings at only eight points from Rovanperä and tied at 31 with Evans.
His goal in Croatia: to take the leadership by storm. Takamoto Katsuta will once more complete the line-up of the Japanese team.
Sandwiched between Toyota’s ‘big three’ (Rovanperä, Ogier and Evans) is Thierry Neuville. His two third places at ‘Montecarlo’ and Finland, gave the Hyundai Motorsport driver, second place in the standings, only four points away from the top.
Alongside the driver from Saint Vith, there will be the other bastion of the Alzenau squad: Ott Tänak. The dominant winner of the Arctic Rally Finland, he faces the Balkan test desperately needing to cut back on the twelve points that separate him from the leader.
At the wheel of the third i20 Coupe WRC, will be Craig Breen for who this will be his second consecutive race this year after obtaining a fourth place in Finland.
M-Sport: Hopes are high after numerous changes
M-Sport arrives at the Croatia Rally having implemented some significant human and technical changes. Teemu Suninen will be stepping down to WRC2 at this maiden round onboard a Fiesta Rally2, handing over the seat of the second Fiesta WRC to Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux.
Also, Gus Greensmith will have veteran Chris Patterson as co-driver. Finally, the team from Cumbria is releasing its latest engine update, which is hoped will raise the performance of their fleet of Fords as compared to the previous rounds.
Images of Croatia Rally: Toyota GAZOO Racing.