Croatia is perhaps best-known for the numerous beaches and islands along its Adriatic coast which make the country such a popular holiday destination. Croatia isn’t really known for its motorsport. But that might be about to change, if the evidence of its first ever World Rally Championship round last year is anything to go by.
Officially, the inaugural WRC Croatia Rally was to be held without spectators because of the pandemic, with large gatherings not permitted and tickets taken off sale. But many locals still walked considerable distances to ‘have a picnic’ in the beautiful countryside around Zagreb and with the added bonus of watching rally cars blast by their chosen lunch spot.
Putting those rules and their interpretation to one side, the enthusiasm of the Croatian public to see some of the world’s best drivers competing on their own territory was plain to see – also at the ceremonial start in Zagreb itself before the rally had even begun for real. This year, with restrictions eased, organisers are expecting 350,000 fans to attend. Such popularity might just help make Croatia a modern classic of the WRC, especially when the event also provides the drivers with some of the most challenging asphalt roads they face all year.
No round on the current WRC calendar demonstrates the difference in demands between circuit racing and asphalt rallying as well as Croatia. The stages feature an enormous variety of different surfaces covering the roads – six different types of asphalt to be precise. Some of it is super-smooth and recently laid, but a lot of it is abrasive and broken. The amount of grip available from these different surfaces also varies a lot, and these changes can’t necessarily be seen by the naked eye and especially while travelling at speed. This caught many of the drivers out when they went there for the first time last year – some as early as the very first stage.
Complicating matters is the fact that these surfaces can get extremely dirty. Many sections run through forests and underneath trees, meaning they can be covered in fallen leaves or other debris. Then there’s corner-cutting, which is key to gaining time in rallying but can bring mud, dirt or even gravel onto the stage for the drivers behind.
On top of all this, the roads are often bumpy and also feature many crests and jumps: a characteristic expected more from gravel events like Rally Finland than on asphalt rallies. So the drivers and co-drivers have a lot to deal with, and so do the tyres. Pirelli provides the drivers in the top Rally1 category with P Zero RA WRC tyres in hard and soft compounds, while there’s also a Cinturato rain tyre in case of extreme wet conditions: Always a possibility in April in Croatia.
One blessing for the drivers is that most of the rally route will be the same as in 2021, so those that competed last year will at least be familiar with most of the roads used. These carried over stages are all situated near to Zagreb, and this location plays a big part in the rally’s popularity: It’s not common for a WRC round to have its service park situated right inside a capital city. In fact, most of the action takes place just west of Zagreb and very close to the border with Slovenia – within easy reach for fans coming from either direction, and even from other countries including Italy, Austria and Hungary.
The organisers have tried to expand the rally’s geographical footprint slightly this year with two new stages. Trakoscan – Vrbno, the first of Sunday’s two repeated stages, takes the action further north. But the most interesting addition is Saturday’s Platak test, a lengthy drive along the A6 motorway away towards the coastal city of Rijeka.
Taking in more of the picturesque coastline might make the Croatia Rally even more of a spectacle in future. But for it now the event takes rallying to the people – and to arguably the most demanding asphalt roads in the WRC.
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