A DOWN TO EARTH WEEKEND FOR CITROËN RACING
For the penultimate round of the 2017 World Rally Championship, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT tackled the daunting Welsh stages. Aside from Kris Meeke's seventh place, the team can take heart from the performance level shown by the C3 WRC throughout the weekend.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
On Thursday evening, huge crowds gathered at the Tir Prince trotting track to witness the event's curtain-raiser. But it wasn't until Friday that the fans got the chance to see the World Rally Cars in action on the Welsh forest roads. For once, the first leg was held under bright blue skies.
Kris Meeke wasted no time in making his mark, setting the second fastest time on SS2 behind Elfyn Evans, who was already in unbeatable form. By midday, the no.9 C3 WRC was third overall. After making a good start to the race, Craig Breen was held up by a slow puncture on SS4. He lost over a minute and the Irishman dropped out of the top 10.
After changing tyres in the small town of Newtown, the first leg concluded with second runs on the stages. With the muddy surface churned up by the cars during the first pass, Kris Meeke's ninth position in the running order proved to be more of a handicap in the afternoon. On his return to service at the end of the day, he was sixth overall, but still within 18s of second place.
Having picked up his pace again – especially in recording the fourth fastest time on SS5 – Craig Breen didn't make it to the end of the leg. He spun the car and the front ended up stuck in a ditch full of water. Despite suffering no damage and getting help from a few spectators, he was unable to get going again and had to retire. He was of course able to rejoin the rally the following day under Rally2 rules.
Day two, a mammoth seventeen hours long, was expected to be even more difficult. To start with, the crews completed a sequence of seven stages, covering a competitive distance of 110km, with no service period. This time, the conditions were typical of Wales Rally GB, with drizzle and an icy wind blowing around thick patches of fog.
Like the day before, Kris Meeke entered the fray to try and close on the podium places. Fifth after SS8, he maintained his pace until SS11. The British driver missed a chicane, stalled and lost about ten seconds.
Despite his love of these stages, Craig Breen was unable to drive his C3 WRC at 100%, due to a problem with the handbrake. He had to wait until after service, scheduled at the end of the afternoon, in order to be able to use this vital tool for negotiating tight corners and hairpins! Saturday’s leg concluded with two stages contested after dark. Once again, the fog made matters more complicated for the drivers. The Citroën C3 WRCs nonetheless made it back to service safe and sound, without any particular issues.
With just five short stages to complete, the third and final leg was something of a sprint finish. Waiting to see if any opportunities came his way, twenty or so seconds behind the car in front, Kris Meeke decided to be patient at the start of the leg. He gradually picked up his pace, before then pushing on the Power Stage. In setting the second fastest time, he rounded off a positive weekend on a high, one during which the Citroën C3 WRC driver had enjoyed driving in these tricky conditions.
Craig Breen also finished the rally on a positive note, setting three top-six times during the morning. He therefore made a fine comeback, to climb from 36th to 15th place. Driven by Khalid Al Qassimi, the third car entered by Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT at this rally also made it to the end. On his return to this type of surface, the Emirati driver finished in 22nd place.
QUESTIONS FOR YVES MATTON, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
What can you say about this rally?
"First and foremost, I would like to congratulate Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Malcolm Wilson and his M-Sport team on winning their World Championship titles. They have had an intelligent season, managing to combine performance and consistency. It is this consistency that has meant that they have won the titles with one round to go. As regards the rally itself, we felt that it would be difficult to compete with Elfyn Evans, who had a tyre set-up particularly well suited to this surface and these conditions. That proved to be the case, but the performance of Elfyn was nonetheless remarkable."
And what about the Citroën crews?
"We knew that the starting positions of Kris Meeke and Craig Breen for the first leg could be a handicap. In the first few stages, however, our drivers were on the pace: Kris got among the leaders and Craig might have done the same had he not picked up a slow puncture on Friday morning. Saturday's leg proved decisive. Due to a number of minor reasons, Kris lost time but he was never that far away from second place. On Sunday, he proved once again – as did Craig – that we have made substantial progress on this type of surface. Aside from Kris' final result of seventh place, I'm mostly pleased by the feeling that our drivers had in the car. They both said that had really enjoyed being in the C3 WRC this weekend and that it was efficient, fast and pleasant to drive. This is further rewards for all the work done before the summer."
You held your pre-event test in the south of France. Wouldn't it have been preferable to test in the UK?
"For the last few months, the work done in testing has been mainly designed to prepare for the 2018 season, with the aim of widening the operating window of the C3 WRC. At the same time, we have to work within certain budget restrictions and the cost of repairing British roads is particularly high. We therefore chose roads that had certain similarities with those in Wales and the feedback from this session was useful for our drivers this weekend."
Sébastien Loeb spent a lot of time in the service park this weekend… Will we see him contest a rally in the near future?
"Well, in any event, it was certainly a first to see him working as a television pundit in Wales! It was nice for the entire team to see Seb again and we spent some time talking about what we might do together in 2018. It's still a bit early to say more than that, but I think both sides would like to do something!
There is now only one round left this season… What are your targets for Australia?
"Before Spain, we said that we wanted to win one rally and get one podium in 2017. We achieved the target of winning a rally, but I think our drivers will have a good chance of winning again in Australia. Kris Meeke, Craig Breen and Stéphane Lefebvre will form our driver line-up in Australia and they will have excellent starting positions on the opening leg. We can be ambitious for this final round, before switching our focus entirely to 2018."