Ogier triumphs in TOYOTA GAZOO one-two after spectacular finish in Croatia

In an unforgettable first-ever Croatia Rally on 23-25 April, Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia took the stage victory by the narrowest of margins. After almost having to drop out of the race, the pair eventually finished less than a second ahead of their TOYOTA GAZOO Racing stablemates Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin.

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Sébastien Ogier moved back to the top of the WRC standings after – alongside his co-driver Julien Ingrassia – he was crowned the winner of the inaugural Croatia Rally that formed the third stage of the 2021 season.

However, his win was anything but easy. Ogier and Ingrassia had to come back from a collision that nearly spelled the end of their rally, and ultimately claimed victory by just 0.6 seconds from Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin. This is one of the closest WRC stages ever recorded.

A close fight from the start

As reigning World Rally Champion and a seven-time winner, Ogier had grown used to seeing his name at the top of the driver’s championship rankings. But that was not the case after two rounds of this year’s WRC: young driver Kalle Rovanperä was the surprise package in the number one position, having driven consistently well in Monte-Carlo and Finland.

Sadly, Rovanperä could not keep up his charge in Croatia: his car came off the road in the first stage, and was unable to continue. That meant the championship lead was anyone’s for the taking – and Ogier and Evans could barely be separated as they aimed for top spot, even sharing the fastest time on one stage. At the end of day one, they were just 0.3 seconds apart, with Ogier marginally in front, 7.7 seconds behind overnight leader Thierry Neuville.

The positions changed on day two, but the times remained just as close. Neuville dropped back in the morning, allowing Ogier to capitalize and finish the day in the lead, only 6.9 seconds ahead of Evans and 10.4 seconds ahead of Neuville. Just two morning stages and a Power Stage remained on the final day, but no one was able to foresee the dramatic events that would shortly unfold.

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From setback to success

No one expected the final day to be easy. On unfamiliar roads and in the WRC’s first pure asphalt rally in nearly two years, anything could happen.

Ogier was to discover this before the racing even started: while heading to the opening speed test, he was involved in a collision with a public vehicle. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and Ogier and Ingrassia’s car was still able to race, though its aerodynamics were affected.

After this traumatic start, Ogier surrendered the lead in the first two stages, with Elfyn Evans 3.9 seconds ahead before the final Power Stage. Even the one-two was not guaranteed, with Neuville threatening to overhaul Ogier and take second place. Ogier later admitted he thought the rally could be over for him.

What happened next will go down in WRC history. Ogier and Ingrassia were fastest throughout the stage, steadily narrowing the gap to Evans and Martin. It still might not have been enough – until Evans slid wide in the final kilometers, handing the slimmest of advantages back to Ogier. As Ogier crossed the finish line, his overall time was just 0.6s faster than Evans.

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Emotional conclusion for both drivers

After the race’s nail-biting ending, the TOYOTA GAZOO drivers expressed a mix of emotions: relief, excitement, disappointment, satisfaction.

“It has been a real rollercoaster of emotions this weekend,” said Ogier. “I’m not sure I believed it was possible to still win after everything that happened, but I think everybody knows that I never give up and I tried to keep fighting until the end. I feel for Elfyn who did a good job – but we had good pace this weekend and just had some issues that slowed us down at times. It’s nice to share the podium in another one-two for the team.”

Evans added: “To come second is never the way you want to finish when you go into the last stage with the lead. Seb had a very, very strong last stage and we made an error on what was basically the last proper corner. It’s frustrating but at the same time it’s a solid result, and a very good result for the team.”

The excitement will resume soon, as the FIA World Rally Championship heads to Portugal on 20-23 May for the first gravel event of the year. If it’s anything like the Croatia Rally, it will be one not to miss.