Croatia becomes the 34th country to stage an FIA World Rally Championship fixture when the Balkan state hosts the third round of the 2021 campaign this weekend (22 – 25 April).
The series returns after a two-month break, with capital city Zagreb the base for three days of fast asphalt action. It is the first pure asphalt encounter since August 2019, and a mix of smooth and very bumpy roads – and everything in-between – will offer a stern challenge.
Twenty-year-old Kalle Rovanperä arrives in Croatia as the youngest-ever leader of the WRC and his Toyota Gazoo Racing squad tops the manufacturers’ standings. Its Yaris World Rally Car has won the WRC’s last two sealed-surface encounters, held in snow and ice.
He remains cool, despite a trio of drivers eager to hunt him down who all lie within eight points of the Finn.
“I’m not feeling any pressure even though I’m leading the championship,” he said. “It’s only been two rallies and we have a long season ahead. For sure it’s nice to be in this position but we have to work hard to try to stay in the fight.
“It will be the first time for me on a proper asphalt event with the Yaris, as so far I’ve only had events with winter conditions like Monza and Monte-Carlo. The stages look really nice but, if it’s raining, I think there will be a lot of mud on the road and that will be tricky.”
Two of Rovanpera’s pursuers are Toyota team-mates. Reigning champion Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans are tied in third, four points adrift of Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville.
Neuville is joined by Ott Tänak and Craig Breen in i20 World Rally Cars for what will be Breen’s first asphalt outing since 2018.
At M-Sport Ford, young Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux steps up from the WRC2 support class for his maiden appearance at the top level. He drives a Fiesta World Rally Car alongside Gus Greensmith, who competes with co-driver Chris Patterson for the first time.
Takamoto Katsuta drives a fourth Yaris and Pierre-Louis Loubet lines up in his 2C Competition-entered Hyundai.
As well as trying to master the Croatian mountain roads, the drivers will use Pirelli’s P Zero asphalt tyres for the first time since the Italian company’s return to the WRC’s top flight this year.
All have tested different car set-ups in preparation, but not until Friday’s opening kilometres will they start to gain a full understanding of how the rubber works in the heat of competition.
After Thursday evening’s start ceremony, the action starts on Friday morning. Crews face 20 tests covering 300.32km before Sunday afternoon’s finish.
Credits : Photos and content courtesy of Red Bull Media house GmbH