Neuville won the opening two special stages in his Hyundai i20. Although Elfyn Evans halted Neuville’s run, the Belgian added a third success in the morning’s final test to head Evans by 7.3sec.
Rovanperä, the youngest driver ever to lead the championship at 20, drifted wide on a right bend 5.4km into the opening Rude – Plešivica test. His Toyota Yaris plunged down a bank, coming to rest against a tree. The car was heavily damaged but the Finn and co-driver Jonne Halttunen were unhurt.
“It was the last downhill section which was really slippery. I lost the car already in the entry of the corner, I never made the proper racing line and we went straight off. A bit too much speed and understeer and that’s the result, my mistake,” Rovanperä admitted.
The stages south-west of capital city Zagreb became increasingly dirty as drivers cut corners and dragged gravel onto the asphalt. Rovanperä’s demise left Neuville to open the roads with the best grip.
“They are tricky conditions but I tried to take the benefit from my road position on the first two stages,” he said. “On the last ones, the conditions stayed similar for all. We tried to have a clean run without too many mistakes, but we went a bit wide on a couple of junctions because the grip suddenly changed.”
Evans, driving his first pure asphalt event in a Toyota Yaris, was never outside the top three stage times and the Welshman held a 5.0sec advantage over team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
The Frenchman was fortunate to escape at the same place as Rovanperä crashed, ending the test with a puncture after swiping a bank.
Ott Tänak was the only driver to opt for Pirelli’s hard compound P Zero tyres solely and the Estonian struggled to match i20 team-mate Neuville’s pace. He returned to the Zagreb service park 25.3sec off the lead in fourth.
Craig Breen made it three Hyundais in the top five. The Irishman is driving his first all- asphalt rally since 2018 and it was taking him time to find his confidence. He was 8.1sec adrift of Tänak and 11.0sec clear of top-level debutant Adrien Fourmaux.
The Frenchman was impressive on his way to sixth in a Ford Fiesta, 5.1sec ahead of team-mate Gus Greensmith.
Pierre-Louis Loubet and Takamoto Katsuta were eighth and ninth, Katsuta dropping two places after overshooting a corner in the final stage. WRC2 leader Mads Østberg completed the top 10.