Neuville on top as all-new Central European Rally begins

Thierry Neuville. IMage: Red Bull Content Pool

Thierry Neuville has emerged as the driver to beat on the all-new Central European Rally. Image: Red Bull Content Pool

Thierry Neuville might be out of the fight for the 2023 World Rally Championship title, but he’s emerged as the driver to beat on the all-new Central European Rally, which features stages in Austria, Czech Republic and Germany from Thursday until Sunday.

The Hyundai star, a German speaker, went 1.4s faster than world champion Kalle Rovanpera through the 3.62-kilometre practice stage on Wednesday evening to set the early pace on the penultimate round of the WRC season.

“It looks interesting out there,” Belgian Neuville said. “The stages look good, challenging of course, but they were all pretty nice to be honest. It will be more about getting the feeling in the car and everything after so many gravel rallies.”

While Neuville’s title hopes are at an end, Rovanpera can put the crown beyond his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans with a strong result on the all-tarmac event.

“I think this week is going to be quite tough overall,” said Rovanperä, who is 31 points ahead of Evans in the championship standings with 60 left on the board.

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“Every day is a bit different and there has been a lot of work on the pacenotes. It’s going to be a tough weekend.”

Evans, who won the most recent Tarmac event on the WRC schedule, April’s Croatia Rally, is prepared for rain to add to the challenge.

If it rains, which is likely, it’s going to be difficult conditions with so many surface changes and a lot of cutting, we’re expecting slippery conditions so it’s not going to be easy out there,” he said.

M-Sport Ford Puma driver Ott Tanak, the Rally Chile winner earlier this month, was just 0.1s slower than Rovanpera in third with Evans trailing seven-tenths further behind.

“Looking at the current forecast there is a chance of rain [on Thursday],” Tanak said.

“In a rally like this in the forests with all the leaves, the dirt and cuts as well will make it quite unpredictable so it’s going to be challenging but at this time of year no rally is easy. It’s been a long, long break since the last WRC rally on Tarmac and it takes some kilometres to get back into the rhythm but it’s nice to be back.”

Esapekka Lappi was fifth fastest for Hyundai, 0.6s down on Evans, with eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier sixth quickest aboard his works Toyota followed by Takamoto Katsuta and Teemu Suninen.

Pierre-Louis Loubet, who is competing with new co-driver Benjamin Veillas for the first time following his split with Nicolas Gilsoul, was ninth after an early delay due to an engine issue. Gregoire Munster, Loubet’s M-Sport team-mate, completed the top 10 on his third Rally1 start.

The crews head three hours north to the Czech capital Prague from event base Passau in Germany on Thursday morning for the ceremonial start, a superspecial in the outskirts of the city, plus an 8.92-kilometre circuit-style stage from 18h05 local time prior to their return to Passau.

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