Rally Croatia, which started its very first rally at WRC last year, is now celebrating its second year. Rally Croatia began under the name Delta Rally in 1974 during the Yugoslav federation, and it continued to survive after its independence as Croatia in 1991. And during the COVID pandemic last year, it has finally settled on the calendar as one of the WRC Championships. Without France and Germany, Rally Croatia became the first tarmac rally in the Rally 1 era, where hybrid rally cars emerged.
The stage, located west of Zagreb – the capital of Croatia – and near the border with Slovenia, greets participants with unpredictable paved roads that are hard to estimate traction. Due to the complex corners and frequent jumps, the difficulty of taking pacenotes is top-notch. In particular, the Žumberak Natural Park course for Friday has almost no straight lines enough to be called ‟1,000 curves.” It is easy to misread the navigation for its countless curves. In addition, many predicted that this year’s game would be more complicated than last year due to the rain. Rally Croatia, which consisted of 20 stages with a total length of 291.84 km, was sure to be a fierce stage.
Hyundai Motorsport struggled at the opening race in Monte Carlo as their new car development project fell behind. But it seemed to change its future as Neuville finished second in Round 2 of Rally Sweden. Therefore, the 8-week break from the end of Rally Sweden on February 27 and Rally Croatia on April 21 was extremely precious to the Hyundai team.
Recently, there have been many changes in Hyundai Motorsports Corporation (HMSG). First of all, Vice President Seon-Pyung Kim, an expert in platform and vehicle development, took over as the new head of the corporation. Seon-Pyung Kim, managing director, was one of the foremost contributors to the establishment of HMSG, and participated in the development of the WRC rally car prototype as well as the i30 N and Veloster N. Additionally, deputy team director Julien Moncet became a successor to coach Andrea Adamo, who left the team after last season.
The Hyundai Team’s driver lineup was the same for three consecutive games: Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak, and Oliver Solberg. Neuville, who finished 6th in the opening race and 2nd in Sweden, climbed to 2nd place in the Drivers’ Championship, and he is struggling for the Hyundai Team to win. On the other hand, Tanak, who has been halted by his retirement at the opening race and hybrid system trouble in Sweden, is now in 11th place in the Championship with 5 points from the Rally Power Stage in Sweden. Solberg, the rising star, is 10th in the Championship after finishing 6th (8 points) in Sweden.
The Toyota team used four Yaris Rally 1 race cars for Kalle Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans, Esapeka Lappi and Takamoto Katsuta. The Ford team featured Craig Breen, Adrien Fourmaux, and Gus Greensmith. Additionally, as Pierre-Louis Loubet drives the Puma Rally 1, the most Rally 1 cars (eleven) this season are on the entry.
A shakedown began on Thursday on a 3.65km-long stage west of Zagreb. The weather was clear in the beginning; but soon it started to rain, and the rest of the race was about to be harsher. On tarmac rallies, who goes first is less important than on gravels (unpaved roads). However, suppose it rains in Croatia, where the road is narrow. The cars ahead will bring the surrounding gravel and mud to the road, so the later you start, the more disadvantageous; it’s the complete opposite of the Gravel Rally.
On Friday, April 22, the match started at the 19.2km Mali Lipovec – Grdanjci stage, a little further west of the previous day’s test course. The four stages are 120.38km-long SS1 – SS8, repeated in the morning and afternoon.
Toyota’s Rovanpera won the first two stages and took the lead. But his teammate, Lappi, was the first to retire after hitting a rock 9.9km from the start. Neuville, who fell into a ditch, got mud on the inside of the wheel and struggled, but maintained second place. Tanak finished a close race in third, followed by Brin, Greensmith, and Solberg. Evans got caught by a tire puncture and was two minutes away from the lead, and Loubet had a left front tire damaged at SS2, and had to give up the race since he had no spare tire.
Tanak overtook Neuville in SS6 to rise to second place. Neuville placed 4th, Solberg 5th, and the Hyundai Team trio rose to the top. After completing the morning loop, Neuville got to the service park late because his car stopped due to a generator failure; he also received an additional penalty for speeding between stages and was pushed to fourth place.
At the close of Friday, Rovanpera took the lead. Tanak placed 2nd with a 1′ 23″ difference, and Brin placed 3rd. Neuville, who placed 4th, was performing well in the afternoon, so the penalty was even more disappointing. Still, the time difference with Brin was reduced to 28.8 seconds. Solberg placed 5th overall, followed by Evans and Katsuta.
On Saturday, I ran 116.98km in 8 stages of SS9 – SS16. On Friday, four stages were repeated in the morning and afternoon. Some roads were slippery with rain and mud, and thick fog reduced visibility, making the race even more terrifying. Toyota’s Evans and Lappi were the fastest in SS9 and SS10, respectively, and aimed for takeover. In SS11 and SS12, Hyundai Team Tanak and Neuville recorded the lead and came closer to the double podium.
The thick fog made the SS11 Platak particularly difficult; Some racers said it was the worst road condition of their life. Rovanpera in the lead chose wet tires, unlike the dry tires of his competitors, but lost more than 50 seconds due to a puncture. On the other hand, Tanak, who made the same choice, took the first lead in this race and pulled the reins of pursuit. Solberg was unfortunately retired due to an accident.
Tanak continued to race in the afternoon; after completing the SS13, the gap between the leader was reduced to 13 seconds. Rovanpera tried his best as well. The SS15 Platak, which locates over 1,000m above sea level, was canceled due to thick fog; Rovanpera won the SS16 and widened the gap with Tanak to 19.9 seconds. Rovanpera led the way, followed by Tanak and Breen. Neuville finished Saturday with Breen aiming for the podium in fourth place 4.9 seconds, despite the last-minute engine troubles at the SS13.
Sunday, April 24. Heading north from Zagreb, the final match was held in two stages: Trakošćan – Vrbno (13.15 km) and Zagorska Sela – Kumrovec (14.09 km). The road at the 54.48km-long course on Sunday was wider than ever before. SS18, which repeats Zagorska Sela – Kumrovec (SS20), is the final / power stage with a maximum of 5 points.
At SS17, which started at seven in the morning, Rovanpera secured his lead by finishing second behind Lappi. Tanak thought of the possibility of rain and took four soft and two wet tires, but the distance widened. The fight for third place was just as fierce as the competition for the lead. Neuville took the lead at SS18, narrowing the gap with Breen in third to 2.2 seconds.
SS19 was the same as SS17. But the heavy rain brought Tanak an opportunity; He was right with the wet tire, and he took first place. It was his second lead since S11 the day before. Tanak took the lead overall, 1.4 seconds ahead of Rovanpera before the final stage. Neuville also performed well, finished SS19, and ranked 3rd overall. The final SS20, which also works as a power stage, seemed to make a fiercer competition between Tanak and Rovanpera. Still, the road surface dried quickly as the weather cleared, unlike Tanak’s chance to win.
A crisis came again for Neuville, who was almost certain to take third despite a few problems. He made everyone terrified when he slid downhill straight into a ditch. In addition, intercom issues required his co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe to give directions by hand. But Neuville calmly turned his car around to finish the course and secured third place thanks to the gap he already had with his competitors. On the other hand, Tanak couldn’t outrun the Rovanpera with dry tires. In the end, Rovanpera, who took the SS20, became the Croatian Rally winner. Tanak took second place by only 4.3 seconds, and Neuville took third place. It was a close battle that made you sweat until the very end.
Although it was a close race, Hyundai’s first double podium of the season proved that their rally cars were improving. In the Drivers Championship points, Neuville, who scored 15 points, maintained second place (47 points), and Tanak added 22 points to rise to fifth place (27 points). Hyundai Team with its double podium jumped to second place with 84 points, beating Ford. Round 4 Rally Portugal will soon be held on May 19.
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.