Toyota pilot Sebastien Ogier took the victory over the weekend WRC Croatia Rally, outperforming his teammate Elfyn Evans by just 0.6 seconds. Estonian driver Ott Tänak (Hyundai) finished fourth and captured one more point from the point stage while struggling with tire selection throughout the rally.
Tänak got to a good start on Friday, finishing second behind Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) after the short opening speed stage. But on the next, nearly 24 km stage, Tänak lost to his Hyundai teammate by 15.7 seconds. Tänak was capable of a fifth-place finish in the third stage and went to the service break on fourth overall.
The Estonian came out of the break after admittedly making multiple changes to the tire selection and won the first stage post-break. He settled with fourth place for the sixth and seventh stage and finished second on Friday's final stage.
Neuville and Ogier were the fastest on Friday with the former finally taking the day with a time of 55:36.8. Ogier was 7.7 seconds behind with Elfyn Evans only 0.3 seconds behind Ogier. Tänak was already 31.9 seconds behind Neuville by the end of Friday.
While Toyota pilots entered Saturday with five sets of hard tires, Hyundai decided to bring two sets of hard tires and three sets of soft tires. Neuville promptly fell from first place and confirmed after the first stage that they had made the wrong choice. Tänak was not able to climb closer to the top three either.
Ogier ended Saturday as the leader with Elfyn Evans (+6.9) giving chase at second. Neuville was 10.4 seconds behind Ogier, with Tänak alread 37.8 seconds behind the leader.
Sunday's rally day got off to a dramatic start even before any of the speed stages were even begun, as rally leader Sebastien Ogier got into a regular traffic accident on the streets of Zagreb. The right side of the World Rally category car was damaged and co-driver Julien Ingrassia was forced to wear protective goggles until the end of the race to protect him from dust and gravel particles.
Ogier still took a close first place after Sunday's opening stage, but he dropped seven seconds to Evans in the second speed stage of the day, also falling to second in the overall standings. Thierry Neuville also got off the blocks well on Sunday and after the opening stage, the first three were separated by just eight seconds.
Tänak was caught in no man's land, finishing fourth Saturday 27.4 seconds behind third-place Neuville and 51.7 seconds ahead of fifth-place Adrien Fourmaux (Ford). The Estonian did not have anyone to catch or anyone to realistically lose to for a fourth-place finish.
The duel between the Toyota men (Ogier and Evans) was as tension-packed as can be with Evans in the lead for the overall rally at the penultimate checkpoint, but a small curve error forced him to lose to Ogier by 4.5 seconds. Neuville finished third, 8.1 seconds behind Ogier.
"This has not been the level of performance that we would have expected or hoped for coming to this rally. I enjoy tarmac rallies but throughout the weekend it has been far out of my comfort zone," Tänak posted on social media after the rally.
The 2019 world champ added: "It just did not feel natural, and we've lacked the performance edge we needed. It is clear that there is a job for me to do, but we can take some consolation from the job that Thierry has done this weekend."
After season rally leader Kalle Rovanperä (Toyota) took a crash on Friday, Tänak was able to vault him for fourth in the overall rankings. There are still nine more rally rounds for the season to go with the next one - Rally de Portugal - scheduled for May 20-23.
Drivers rankings for the season:
1. Sebastien Ogier 61 points
2. Thierry Neuville 53
3. Elfyn Evans 51
4. Ott Tänak 40
5. Kalle Rovanperä 39
6. Craig Breen 24
7. Takamoto Katsuta 24
8. Adrien Fourmaux 12
1. Toyota 138
2. Hyundai 111
3. M-Sport 42
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste