A FINAL LOOK AT THE 2017 SEASON
After ending the opening leg among the leaders, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team crews then had a tougher time during the rest of Rally Australia. With Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle's seventh place being the best result of the C3 WRCs, the final round of the season proved to be a frustrating one. The Citroën Racing team has already begun to turn its attention to preparations for the 2018 season.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
On Friday, the rally began in the rainforests to the north of Coffs Harbour, a small coastal town located roughly halfway between Sydney and Brisbane. On the opening stages, the Citroën drivers established themselves in the leading group. This was especially true of Kris Meeke, who was second overall after SS2. On the next stage, the Briton lost a dozen seconds or so after a running slightly wide and off the road. He held onto second position at the mid-leg point, a second ahead of his team-mate Craig Breen. Held up by a puncture on SS1, Stéphane Lefebvre was ninth.
On the second pass on the stages, Kris remain in second place. Kris Meeke ended the leg in third place by just 0.7s, however, after he was overtaken by Thierry Neuville on the final stage of the day, held on the Pacific Ocean coast. As their lack of experience at this event caught up with them, Craig and Stéphane lost ground due to a few minor errors. At the end of day one, the young drivers were still fifth and ninth.
The second leg began with the famous Nambucca stage, almost 50km in length and held on roads in the Australian jungle. With rainfall overnight and during the stage, the conditions made the stage even more difficult for the crews. Still third overall at the mid-leg point, Kris Meeke then suffered a stroke of bad luck on SS12. After a minor contact with a bridge, the rear suspension of the C3 WRC gave way, forcing the Briton to retire for the day.
Craig Breen completed a consistent and error-free day to finish the second leg in fourth position; he therefore remained ready to seize an opportunity to get onto the podium. The Irishman produced an impressive performance to set the joint fastest time on SS15.
Due to retirements further up the standings, Stéphane Lefebvre also moved up into seventh place. Despite two spins and a gamble on tyre choice for the second pass that didn't really pay off, the Frenchman could nonetheless take some positives from the day.
However, Stéphane was caught off guard on Sunday morning. On SS17, contested in heavy rain, he was sent wide by a muddy patch and hit a large tree stump. With the right rear wheel ripped off, he was forced to retire. A few minutes later, the team was also hit by news of the retirement of Craig Breen, who rolled spectacularly on SS18!
Kris Meeke was therefore left as Citroën's sole representative. Having rejoined under Rally2 rules with the aim of using the leg as a full-scale test, the Northern Irishman set the fifth fastest time on the Power Stage and finished seventh overall.
QUESTIONS FOR YVES MATTON, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
What is your assessment of this rally?
"After a series of good results, it was a frustrating to end the season. On day one, when the running order was largely in our favour, Kris managed to challenge for the lead. He looked set to secure at least a podium place, but a tiny contact with a bridge stopped him in his tracks. It was really unlucky. As for our young drivers, I asked them to show their speed this weekend. They both did just that, although it was less evident for Stéphane due to a series of setbacks, like the two punctures on Friday and two spins on Saturday. For his debut in Australia, Craig produced an assured performance, managing to adapt his pace to the difficulties. Obviously, it's a shame that they were both caught out in the rain on Sunday. That goes to show just how long the road is to get to the top, and probably even more so in WRC than elsewhere."
What is your overall view of the 2017 season?
"In general terms, we have to be pleased with the quality of the competition offered by the WRC. The new generation of cars have more than lived up to expectations and we have seen exciting rallies from start to finish. It is a long time since four manufacturers and seven different drivers have won races in a single season! More than ever before, the World Rally Championship provides an excellent platform for a manufacturer looking to showcase its products. Having said that, the level of competition has gone up several notches this year and we have to acknowledge that. As regards Citroën Racing, we were pleased to win two rallies, in Mexico and Spain. That matches the target set by Citroën's senior management at the start of the season. I'm not overlooking the very tough times we experienced in the middle of the season, but the work undertaken in the summer has led to some concrete results since then."
What preparations are underway for 2018?
"Preparations began several months ago. In the design office, the workshop and in testing, the C3 WRC is permanently undergoing development. Some upgrades have already been introduced, others are undergoing approval, pending homologation. The technical team, led by Christophe Besse, has a clear vision of the areas in which we need to improve. The times set in Spain, Wales and Australia lead us to believe that our car is competitive. As regards the drivers, we will shortly announce our plans. It'll be a matter of weeks, since preparations for the Rallye Monte-Carlo will begin in December. One thing I can confirm is that Sébastien Loeb will not be taking part in the opening round of the season. The fact that Monte starts just days after the Dakar Rally ends means that he wouldn't be able to do himself justice."