Belgian driver wows the crowds as all-new fixture begins in the Czech Republic.
Thierry Neuville holds a slender overnight lead as the first edition of the Central European Rally, the penultimate event of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship, got under way (Thursday).
Thousands of fans descended on Czech capital Prague’s Hradčanské Square earlier to cheer the WRC cars and their star drivers being flagged away by President of the Czech Republic Petr Pavel.
Two stages, the superspecial at Prague’s Chuchle Arena horseracing venue and the 8.92-kilometre Circuit of Klatovy test, followed before crews completed their journeys south to the overnight halt in Passau, Germany, where the event is based.
Neuville, driving a Hyundai i20 N Rally1 HYBRID, was third-fastest through the opening stage before a benchmark time on SS2 helped the Belgian leapfrog M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 HYBRID driver Ott Tänak to lead by 1.2s ahead of Friday’s action.
“It was not the greatest stage,” Neuville said of his run over the damp roads of SS2. “I think it was in between the wet and the soft [tyres], and I decided to go to the soft at the very last moment. The anti-cut [devices] were reflecting from the light so we couldn’t see very well, but we had a clean run through.”
Eight-time FIA WRC champion Sébastien Ogier reported that he “did not have a good feeling” aboard his Toyota GR Yaris but did enough to complete the current top three. He trailed Tänak by 4.6s with team-mate Kalle Rovanperä, the championship leader, a single tenth behind.
Rovanperä could clinch his second consecutive WRC title this week, depending on how he fares against colleague Elfyn Evans. However, an overshoot for Evans on SS2 has left the Welshman 4.8s behind the Finn in eighth overall.
Teemu Suninen, Takamoto Katsuta and Pierre-Louis Loubet were blanketed by 2.1s in fifth, sixth and seventh overall, with Esapekka Lappi and Grégoire Munster completing the top 10.
Lappi would have been third were it not for the 10-second time penalty he received for a jump start on SS1, while Munster was slowed by handbrake failure on his Puma.
PH Sport’s Yohan Rossel (Citroën C3 Rally2) heads FIA WRC2 followed by Toksport Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 drivers Andreas Mikkelsen and Nikolay Gryazin, who tops the WRC Challenger classificartion. Czech Filip Kohn (Ford Fiesta Rally3) leads FIA WRC3, while Germany’s Armin Kremer tops the WRC Masters’ Cup.
Earlier, Czech President Petr Pavel was joined FIA Vice President for Sport Robert Reid, Austrian Motorsport Federation Harald Hertz, Autoklub České Republiky President Jan Šťovíček, and Gernd Ennser, Sports President Allgemeiner Deutsche Automobil-Club and WRC Promoter GmbH Managing Director Jona Siebel for a photograph with the Rally1 drivers and co-drivers.
Today’s route takes crews back to Czech Republic for three stages run first in the morning and then again in the afternoon. There’s no service halt during the day, just an opportunity to fit replacement tyres in the town of the Prachatice, Southern Bohemia. With 121.80 timed kilometres in store, a tough day is in prospect for the crews. The 13.66-kilometre Vlachovo Březí stage opens the action from 09:50 CET.