With Craig Breen in particular producing one of the performances of the weekend, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT was among the frontrunners in Sweden. Not only did the team secure the C3 WRC's fourth podium finish but it also held onto third place in the manufacturers' world championship standings.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
There can't be many Irishmen who can say their rallying careers began on a frozen lake in Scandinavia, but for Craig Breen, this is precisely where it all started. His parents got him ice driving lessons as a Christmas present, providing the then fifteen year-old with his first proper experience in a rally car. The 28 year-old then made his debut in a WRC in 2014 at Rally Sweden, before making his maiden outing for Citroën Racing in the 2016 running of the Nordic classic. All of this explains, perhaps, why Craig loves this ultimate winter rally with such passion, where his best result prior to this year was fifth place (2017) in five appearances on the Swedish ice and snow.
Taking full advantage of his good road position (ninth), he demonstrated his acrobatic skills on the first full day of racing, claiming two stage wins and finishing the leg fourth overall, just five tenths shy of the podium. Feeling very confident in his C3 WRC on these fast stages, Craig then upped his pace again the next day to move into second place, just 4.2s adrift of the leader, thanks in large part to a third stage win. However, the guys behind were in no mood to ease off and he needed broad shoulders to keep them at bay. Craig Breen and Scott Martin managed to hold their nerve on Sunday's leg to seal second place and with it, secure their best result in the WRC and a fourth podium of the C3 WRC's short career.
Mads Østberg – the last Citroën driver to claim a podium in Sweden (2014) – also had his sights set on a top-three finish in the early stages of the rally as he ended Friday's leg just 1.1s behind third place, showing that he was getting to grips quickly with the C3 WRC on his return with the Red Army. Still learning about his new machine, he then managed his pace to secure sixth place, scoring important points for the team in the manufacturers' championship.
Kris Meeke's target for the weekend was equally to add a few points to his drivers' championship tally. After having acted as a snowplough on day one (fourth in the running order) thanks to his performance in Monte, he found himself way off the fight at the front. However, the Ulsterman was out of luck again. A seemingly innocuous impact with snow bank ended up damaging his C3 WRC's turbo, forcing him to retire, a stiff penalty for such a minor mistake.
QUESTIONS FOR PIERRE BUDAR, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
Were you expecting Craig to be in such good form at this event?
I don't think many people expected him to do quite so well, perhaps including Craig himself! Obviously, we have always had great faith in him, but he really blew us away here by being both very quick and incredibly consistent. What he did this weekend was quite simply extraordinary! He claimed second place in normal racing conditions, showing control and race craft befitting that of a much more experienced driver. It's definitely another big step forward in his development. He clearly loves racing in Scandinavia because after finishing third at Rally Finland in 2016, he has now recorded the best result of his WRC career to date in Sweden!
This result also confirms the progress of the C3 WRC…
Yes, it shows that our car has serious potential! It also confirms that the work done on gravel since last year's Rally Sweden has been valuable and effective, especially on the suspension geometry, the dampers, the torque distribution and the settings of the active centre differential. Although we had to work hard in order to widen the car's operating window, we have also been constantly improving and fine-tuning the set-up of the C3 WRC, and this result illustrates this perfectly. Lastly, it’s just rewards for the team: the guys put in some really long hours in pre-event testing, probably putting in five days' worth of hours in four days of testing!
What did you think of the performances of Kris and Mads?
Mads certainly made a positive return to the team: he had a consistent race, despite his lack of experience in the C3 WRC, and secured precious points for us. He also provided us with a different approach to set-up options. He undoubtedly also gave Craig some interesting ideas in terms of defining his own set-up. We'll now look together at the possibilities of repeating the experience. As regards Kris, his race was hampered from the start by his road position on day one. However, he was fulfilling his role of team leader perfectly, trying to secure a few points when he suffered his misfortune. He was really unlucky because such a minor mistake shouldn't have had such serious consequences. But let's focus on the positives: he'll have a good position in the running order in Mexico, where he won last year!
Going into the final leg only 9.3s clear of the third-placed driver, Craig Breen sealed his runner-up spot on Likenas (21.19km), gaining 1s on his rival on the first pass and then 3.1s on the second run, meaning he began the final stage (9.56km) with a 13.4s lead. Scott Martin witnessed it all first hand…
"Sunday's opening stage was really decisive. We knew that Likenas was going to suit us. Craig absolutely loves the stage and we really enjoyed it in 2017. And the road conditions were perfect. Half of the distance covered is extremely fast and throughout the weekend, this was precisely the kind of stage where we were most comfortable. We knew that if we kept it clean and tidy, we would set a good time. In the car, we didn't go for a massive push but Craig immediately set a good pace and maintained it right to the end. He was both really focused and relaxed. The first pass confirmed that we had the pace to hold off Mikkelsen! "