A MAJESTIC PERFORMANCE!
With the almost perfect return to the WRC of the iconic Loeb – Elena duo and a second consecutive podium secured by Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT produced a majestic performance on the Mexican gravel, which enabled the team to close in on second place in the manufacturers' world championship.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
Having claimed six wins in Mexico (2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012), sometimes even starting first on the road, Sébastien Loeb had already produced some miraculous performances on these lofty, scorching gravel roads. But it was unthinkable that he could repeat the feat on his return to the WRC as part of a three-event programme (Mexico, Corsica and Catalonia), six years after his last full season in the category, especially given the increasingly tough competition. And yet that is exactly what he did in a C3 WRC that seemed to fit him like a glove! Alongside Daniel Elena, they made the most of their eleventh position in the running order on day one to move into second place, whilst topping the timesheets on two tests, their first stage wins since the 2015 Rallye Monte-Carlo. They then confirmed their good form on the Saturday with another stage win on the opening speed test, taking them into the overall lead, whereas this time the running orders were broadly equivalent among the leaders. Observers, who were already impressed by the French ace, were left stunned by his performance! The 44 year-old Frenchman and his Monegasque co-driver led the race for three stages, before picking up a puncture (SS14) and making the ill-advised call to change the affected wheel, due to a lack of knowledge of the tyres currently used in the WRC. The pair dropped to fifth overall, which is where they would finish the race, but continued to thrill the many fans lining the roads from that point until the end, whilst also securing precious points for the team. It has to be said they were very ably replaced on the podium by Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle, winners of last year's rally. Having equally collected two stage wins on day one despite being hampered by a less-than-ideal tyre choice on the morning loop, the pair ended the opening leg fourth overall, eager to seize any opportunities and determined to move up the standings. Mission accomplished on Saturday's leg: with three further stage wins, they moved up into second place, 10.9s ahead of the third-placed driver. Unfortunately, a minor off on Sunday morning meant they had to settle for third place. It was nonetheless their first podium of the season, and the second consecutive top-three finish for Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT.
QUESTIONS FOR PIERRE BUDAR, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
How would you assess this first rally of the season on gravel?
Well, Kris' third place is obviously positive in terms of points as it means that he moves up the standings in the drivers' world championship. It is also our second consecutive podium this year, which suggests that we are certainly moving in the right direction, and it also means that we have closed to within just one point of second place in the manufacturers' world championship standings. Having held the overall lead for a while on day two, and even had both C3 WRCs briefly in the top three, we might well have hoped for an even better result, but that's racing for you!
The other source of satisfaction must be the majestic performance of Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena…
Yes, that's the least you can say! We know all about their talent, but they have literally blown us away here, even managing to set fastest times on stages that they have not contested before and taking the lead right in the middle of the battle. On that basis alone, they definitely deserved a podium place. It may seem slightly perverse for nine-time world rally champions, but they paid a heavy price for their lack of knowledge of the tyres now used in the WRC when they had their puncture. Let's hope that it's only a matter of time and they get their podium place at the Tour de Corse! In light of the performance they produced this weekend, I can’t really see how they won't be just as able to get among the frontrunners.
What is your view of the performance of the team?
I would like to take this opportunity to warmly congratulate each and every one of them because they have all produced high quality work! With eight stage wins at a rally renowned for being one of the most demanding for the cars – but also for the human body – due to the altitude and the heat, we finished the event as best performer among the manufacturers, which shows how extremely competitive we are. And what's more, we did it without the slightest technical problem. That's not a question of luck, it comes down to relentless hard work and dedication. It is also yet further evidence of the constant progress made by our C3 WRCs.
Fourth overall at that point, Sébastien Loeb claimed his first stage win of the weekend on the second run on El Chocolate (31.44km) during Friday's leg, whereas he was 14.6s off the pace on the first pass. Co-driver of the French ace since 1998, Daniel Elena knows him better than anyone. He gave us his analysis of this stunning performance, incredibly achieved on a stage they had not contested before this weekend…
"It's simple, it's absolutely typical of Loeb! He analysed his 'below-par performance' on the first pass, and put it right on the second run. He doesn't make the same mistake twice! He then drove that stage in typical Loeb fashion, i.e. clean as a whistle, whereas he had pushed too hard in the morning. It was the fact that it was Dani Sordo who had set the fastest time on the first pass that had got him thinking, because Dani also has a precise driving style on twisty, technical sections. I can't honestly say I was surprised by anything this weekend, except perhaps that we didn't make the right call with the puncture. I always thought that it was possible to make this kind of comeback, I know what he's like. I think he has only got better since we retired from the WRC. The WTCC gave him something else, as did cross-country rallying and rallycross, which helped him to work on his reflexes, with him being constantly sideways in a 560 horsepower car!"