PRAGUE — Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville took the early lead in the inaugural Central European Rally after a formal start in Prague and the first two stages in the Czech Republic.
The Belgian led M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tanak by 1.2 seconds in damp conditions.
Eight times world champion Sebastien Ogier was in third place, a further 4.6 seconds behind with Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera a further tenth adrift in fourth, Reuters reported.
Rovanpera can secure his second successive world championship in the rally if results go the Finn’s way. His title rival and team mate Elfyn Evans was running in eighth place, 4.8 seconds behind Rovanpera.
Two stages, the super special 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.
“It was not the greatest stage,” Neuville said of his run over the damp roads. “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] was reflecting from the light so we couldn’t see very well, but we had a clean run through.”
Eight-time WRC champion Sebastien 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 Tanak by 4.6s with team-mate Kalle Rovanpera, the championship leader, a single tenth behind.
Rovanpera 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 Gregoire 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 Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 drivers Andreas Mikkelsen and Nikolay Gryazin, who tops the WRC Challenger classification. 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 Ceske Republiky President Jan Stovicek, 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.
The next 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.