CITROËN RACING GETS BACK TO WINNING WAYS
With Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle's win and the sixth place secured by Stéphane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT enjoyed its best weekend since the start of the year. On the season's only mixed-surface rally, the team led by Yves Matton was able to demonstrate the potential of the C3 WRC on all surfaces and prove the value of all the hard work undertaken in recent months.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
Rally de España began on Friday morning, with the first leg contested predominantly on gravel. The influence of the positions in the running order – i.e. the extent to which the racing line would clean – was the major unknown before the start of the rally.
Ultimately, this complex equation – involving, amongst other things, the type of ground, the temperature, whether it was wet or dry and what type of tyres were used – remained unanswered and the race ended up being a straight fight between half a dozen drivers!
Kris Meeke quickly established himself among the leaders. After claiming a stage win on Bot (SS2), he held fifth place at the midday service despite being handicapped by running with soft tyres, which had suffered in the heat and on the tarmac sections of Terra Alta (SS3). In the afternoon, the Briton was fastest again on SS5 and moved up into third position overall, 3s behind the leader.
Back in competitive action after an extended break and having to deal with roads on which he had limited previous experience, Stéphane Lefebvre had a tough start to the rally. Without making any mistakes, the young Frenchman managed to reduce the gap to the leading drivers on the second pass. He ended the opening leg in ninth position.
Following a long 75-minute service, during which the Red Army's mechanics converted the cars to their tarmac configuration, the rally continued on the wide, fast and flowing roads of Catalonia. Despite a brief shower on El Montmell (SS7), Kris Meeke grabbed the stage win and with it, the overall lead. On the following stage, he was faster than his direct rivals to stretch his lead to over fifteen seconds.
He was then able to minimise the risks taken on the trickiest sections. The rest of the day saw some incredibly close times set by those at the top of the leaderboard. A couple of casualties in the leading group on SS12 meant that Kris headed back to parc ferme with a 13s lead over Sébastien Ogier and 14.5s clear of Ott Tänak.
Like the day before, Stéphane Lefebvre spent the first pass learning about the stages. He then used this experience to up his pace on the second runs, without making any mistakes. At the end of day two, he was eighth overall.
Sunday's third and final leg featured six stages, all contested without a service period. Under cover of darkness, the no.7 C3 WRC driver warned his rivals of what was to come with his first stage win on L’Albiol (SS14). He also won the next two stages to complete a clean sweep on the first loop, extending his lead to 23.9s.
The morning had also gone well for Stéphane Lefebvre, who had set off in pursuit of Mads Østberg. After tying with the Norwegian on SS14, he went faster on the next two stages to close the gap to just 16s. At the same time, the retirements of Lappi and Neuville promoted him to sixth overall.
Stéphane was unable to keep pushing, however, after suffering a minor hydraulics problem and then losing the intercom on the penultimate stage. He decided to make sure of finishing the rally in sixth place.
After claiming another two stage wins – meaning he won a total of eight out of nineteen speed tests – Kris Meeke also eased off slightly on the Power Stage. He nonetheless set the second fastest time before climbing onto the roof of his C3 WRC to celebrate the win!
QUESTIONS FOR YVES MATTON, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
How did you put together this win?
"After recce, we thought that cleaning would have a major influence on the standings during the gravel leg. We were therefore ready to seize the opportunity offered by the favourable starting positions of our cars. In the end, the roads didn't clean as much as expected and no one managed to open up any big gaps. At the end of day one, about half a dozen crews were in contention for the win, with very narrow gaps between them. When the rally switched to tarmac, Kris immediately took control of proceedings. In the space of two stages, he established a small lead, which he was then able to manage. This morning, he wasn't pushing especially hard but he just kept racking up the stage wins, on a surface that was particularly well-suited to the C3 WRC. I think this is an accomplished and significant win, because it was obtained with complete and utter control, on two different types of surface and at a rally where the fight for the title was at its height."
Within the team, what was Kris Meeke's approach?
"Given his domination, his victory may appear straightforward, but it was anything but! In a word, I'd say that his approach was all about being calm and relaxed. Throughout the weekend, he barely looked at his times or those of his rivals. He just drove based on his feeling and that's when he is at his best. He drove quickly in order to stay focussed, whilst holding back a little on the trickiest sections. He managed to get the balance just right. No one had ever doubted his speed or his ability to be the leader of a team."
This result must be a serious boost for the team's confidence?
"Indeed, we certainly needed a result like this to confirm the way in which we had begun to turn things around at Rallye Deutschland. This win highlights the good work that everyone has done and confirmed that the decisions that I took at the end of the spring were well-founded and warranted. Despite our constraints and the time needed to adapt to new working methods, we have shown that we were capable of reacting and that Citroën Racing remains one the leading teams in the World Rally Championship. The reliability and strength of the cars have also been excellent."
What is your take on the sixth place of Stéphane Lefebvre?
"It's another source of satisfaction. Stéphane hadn't taken part in the last two WRC rallies and he didn't have much experience in Catalonia. His job wasn't made any easier by the switch from gravel to tarmac, which resets all your bearings. Given the conditions, he delivered a strong performance, without making any mistakes and consistently improving his times between each pass. This result, combined with the top-five finish he secured in Poland, confirms that he is on the right track. He's young, and needs time to gain experience."
Following this result, what are your hopes for the future?
"Even before 2018 and the homologation of technical upgrades, we can aim to obtain other good results between now and the end of the season. It may be difficult in Wales, since it is an event that has historically been pretty difficult for Citroën and where the weather may well count again us. Australia, however, might be a more inviting round. In light of what we showed during Friday's leg on gravel, there's no reason why we can't be competitive there."