LOEB'S DISPLAY CUT SHORT AS MEEKE CHALLENGES FOR PODIUM PLACE
Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT experienced an opening leg of contrasting fortunes in Corsica, with Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena forced into an early retirement after making a strong start. Meanwhile, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle ended day one third overall in their C3 WRC, confirming their hopes of securing a podium finish.
Featuring just four stages, but held over a competitive distance of more than 125 kilometres, today's opening leg was no easy introduction. The schedule included two runs on the lengthy La Porta – Valle di Rostino stage (49.03km). The speed test is renowned for providing competitors with the full range of characteristics that make the island's roads both appealing and difficult: sweeping, circuit-style sections with long straights, other roads barely more than a car's width, and uphill and downhill sections; mostly on smooth tarmac but bumpy in places and with plenty of gravel and mud dragged onto the road.
On this demanding surface, where the level of grip deteriorated as more cars completed, the road positions of Sébastien Loeb (9th) and Kris Meeke (4th) were not especially advantageous, and yet they both performed well right from the word go: the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT drivers grabbed the second and fourth fastest times on SS 1 (49.03km), 9.7s and 19.1s off the pace respectively.
The performance of Sébastien Loeb was all the more impressive for the fact that he had not previously driven on this stage, whereas his fellow WRC colleagues have contested it since 2016. Unfortunately, caught out by cool tyres and by the road being dirtier than expected, the French ace saw his fine start ruined by an off in the opening metres of the next stage. The nine-time world rally champion was unable to get back onto the road and was therefore forced to retire, but will return to action tomorrow under Rally 2 rules.
Kris Meeke stepped in perfectly as the team's remaining representative. After setting a second fastest time (SS2) and a third fastest time (SS3), the Northern Irishman ended the opening leg third overall, only 5.1s adrift of second place. He thus confirmed that he will be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the fight for the final podium places.
Just over thirty-seven percent of the total distance has been covered so far; the competitors will tackle the rally's longest leg (136.90km in six stages) tomorrow. Two of the three stages contested tomorrow – those held in Cap Corse and Désert des Agriates – are brand new and may throw up their fair share of surprises…
WHAT THEY SAID
Pierre Budar, Citroën Racing Team Principal
"Obviously, it's been a day of mixed fortunes. We're pretty pleased to see Kris Meeke definitely in contention for a podium place. Especially as he didn't throw himself recklessly into the fight, instead adopting a moderate pace. However, we cannot hide our frustration about the retirement of our nine-time world champions that brought their impressive display to a premature end. On a stage where they were the only ones not to have contested it before, they produced a superb performance. There is still a long way to go and we're going to do everything we can to get our C3 WRCs as high up the standings as possible."
"It was a pretty good day for us, I was pleased with my rhythm, even though it wasn't quite enough to keep pace with the leader. I don't know to what extent the road became 'polluted' as more cars came completed the stages. In any case, I was pleased with my C3 WRC. My intercom was playing up, which was a bit annoying at times. With a couple of totally new stages tomorrow, a lot can still happen but I'm very determined to fight to stay in the podium places."
"I turned into a right-hand corner and on the exit, I had to brake for a tighter left-hand bend. I was a caught out a little bit by the amount of gravel and mud on the road, and as a result I understeered and just couldn't quite make the left-hander. As I went off, I tried to avoid hitting a tree straight on but I ended up sliding into a ditch. When I tried to get back out onto the road, I then got totally stuck in the ditch. It's very frustrating because we had made a good start on the opening stage. We'll now try put on a show for the fans."
STANDINGS AFTER DAY 1
- Ogier / Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) 1:19:39.0
- Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) + 33.6
- Meeke / Nagle (Citroën C3 WRC) + 38.7
- Tänak / Jarveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 44.2
- Lappi / Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 1:13.5
- Evans / Mills (Ford Fiesta WRC) + 1:13.8
- Sordo / Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 WRC) + 1:14.4
- Latvala / Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 1:25.0
- Mikkelsen / Jaeger (Hyundai i20 WRC) + 1:29.2
- Bouffier / Panseri (Ford Fiesta WRC) + 1:44.8