CITROËN RACING BACK IN THE MIX
Citroën Racing came into this weekend's Rally Poland armed with an upgraded C3 WRC and hoping to make a fresh start to its 2017 season. The team certainly had a positive rally, with its drivers consistently among the frontrunners and all three cars reaching the finish.
A RACE DICTATED BY THE WEATHER
After recce was completed in glorious sunshine, rain began falling in the north of Poland on Thursday morning. It became heavier on Friday, just as the cars left service to tackle the opening stages.
Running quite far down the starting order, the C3 WRCs had little choice but to drive in the mud churned up by the earlier crews… The morning was especially difficult for Craig Breen, who suffered a transmission issue which left him with a three-wheel drive car! Having lost seven minutes in the morning, the Irishman saw his hopes of a good result evaporate in the opening stages. Andreas Mikkelsen also lost more than a minute after breaking part of the suspension when he hit a tree.
Constantly fighting for eighth position, Stéphane Lefebvre enjoyed an error-free opening leg. Ninth as the cars parked up for the night, he remained in the middle of the chasing group.
Friday afternoon also provided Andreas Mikkelsen with the chance to showcase his skills. Having adjusted the set-up during the mid-leg service, the Norwegian set his first top-five times.
On Saturday, sunshine greeted the crews again at the start of the longest day of the rally. With the crews running in reverse order of the overall standings at the end of Friday's leg, Breen and Mikkelsen were the first on the road, followed by Stéphane Lefebvre in fifth position.
Of the three Citroën drivers, the Frenchman had the best day. Less than 2/10ths per kilometre off the pace of the drivers fighting for overall victory, he closed to within fifteen seconds of sixth place. Andreas Mikkelsen showed similar speed, as he sneaked into the top ten of the overall standings. And Craig Breen was visibly happier again: despite running first on the road, he gradually built up his confidence again, already looking ahead to Rally Finland.
Just four stages remained on Sunday to finalise the positions. With rain falling once more in the region, the drivers had to deal with extremely slippery roads again. Despite the tricky conditions, Stéphane Lefebvre and Gabin Moreau finished off their very good weekend in style as they grabbed fifth place in the Power Stage. They also equalled their best result in the WRC, secured at the 2016 Rallye Monte-Carlo.
Having lost tenth place after overshooting a corner on SS21, Andreas Mikkelsen and Anders Jæger pushed hard until the end of the final stage. The pair clocked the third fastest time on the Power Stage to snatch ninth overall, less than five seconds shy of eighth place.
Meanwhile, Craig Breen and Scott Martin – once again first on the road – finished the event in eleventh position overall.
QUESTIONS FOR YVES MATTON, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
How do you assess the results achieved by Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT at Rally Poland?
"As soon as we saw the weather forecast for opening leg of the rally, we knew that our drivers wouldn't be able to challenge at the front. There were two reasons for this: the fact that all our testing with our latest upgrades had been done in dry conditions and their very poor position in the running order. Craig's race was then dealt a body blow at the start with a mechanical issue. Despite these handicaps, nobody in the team became despondent. As soon as the conditions became more even, our drivers moved back into the mix, making use of the work done by the team before the rally. From Friday lunchtime onwards, Andreas, Stéphane and Craig racked up a total of fifteen top-five times at one of the most intense rallies in the history of the WRC. There are no miracles in motorsport: the hard work we have done will take time to pay dividends, especially as the other teams have not rested on their laurels. The last few tenths are always the most difficult to hunt down."
This time out, it was Stéphane Lefebvre that secured the team's best result…
"When I told Stéphane that he wouldn't be competing in Sardinia, I asked him to work even harder in order to prepare for Poland. He had a good race here in 2016 and we knew that he had the potential to pick up a good result. This weekend, he managed to put together all the things he has learned in his time as a professional rally driver. He had the sense to push when he had the confidence to do so and take it a bit easier when the conditions were too tricky. And for once this season, he had a bit of luck too. This result will help to boost Stéphane's confidence."
Having said all that, he won't be competing at the next two rallies?
"In Finland, Kris Meeke, Craig Breen and Khalid Al Qassimi will form our driver line-up. In Germany, the three C3 WRCs will be driven by Kris Meeke, Andreas Mikkelsen and Craig Breen. Stéphane will return to competitive action in Spain. Just like with our mechanics or engineers, the drivers have to know when to act in the best interests of the team, because our priority is to get the best results for Citroën. Stéphane understands this perfectly well. He won't be sitting around during this period though, because he will be taking part in various test sessions."
Did you make the right call to drop Kris Meeke for Rally Poland?
"It's not the first time that this has happened in the WRC: several teams have made adjustments to their driver line-up in the past. I honestly believe that Kris needed a break. The aim is very simple: for Kris to come back in better form than ever, so that we can win together. For the time being, no one can say with any certainty whether we made the right or wrong call. But we couldn't keep doing nothing. We had to take action to end this run of results and I take full responsibility for this decision."
Kris cannot be held solely responsible for the team's poor run. Some questions have been raised about the handling of the car…
"We never said that. It is worth remembering, however, that after each test session, the drivers said they were very happy with the handling of the car. But they were unable to find the same feeling on rallies conditions. That means that some of the directions taken during development of the C3 WRC were not fit for purpose. Once we had taken the step back we needed to take, I asked the technical team to work on some upgrades that would provide the car with greater versatility. There have been a number of changes: upgrades to the suspension at Rally Sweden, upgrades to the transmission in Poland and others will follow over the coming months. This all takes time. With a wider driver range, we are confident in our ability to move faster in the right direction."
You also reorganised the team, with a new technical director…
"Yes, Laurent Fregosi – who had held this post for a year after having previously been chief engineer, chassis, for the C4, DS 3 WRC and C-Elysée WTCC – wanted to return to a more technically-focused role. We therefore appointed Christophe Besse, an engineer who knows Citroën very well since he was involved in work on the Xsara WRC at the start of the 2000s. This change is part of the new foundations established this weekend."
The aim for the 2017 season was to win races. Is that still the case?
"The priority now is to prepare for 2018. Some of the upgrades will need several months of development work and they won't be ready to be introduced until the start of next season. That doesn't mean that we won't win any more events in 2017. At the Tour de Corse, we showed the performance level of the C3 WRC on tarmac… However, I have asked the engineers to focus on development of the car, rather than on specific settings for each rally."