POSITIVE UPGRADES TO THE C3 WRC
Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT saw the chance of a podium slip away after a harsh puncture, as its efforts over the weekend went largely unrewarded. The team can nonetheless take satisfaction from having once again challenged right at the front in the C3 WRC and from having shown that the recently-approved upgrades to the rear axle of its car have had the desired effect.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
A podium (3rd) on his first WRC appearance in 2014 followed by his first world championship win a year later: there can be no doubt that Kris Meeke enjoys competing at Rally Argentina. Full of confidence in the C3 WRC, on which a new rear axle was introduced for this round, the Northern Irishman wasted no time in demonstrating his love of this event when he made it to midday service on the opening day in third place, particularly thanks to two consecutive second fastest times. He upped his level again in the afternoon, moving into second position, 22.7s behind the leader at the end of day one. Meanwhile, Craig Breen ended the day in sixth overall, just 4.8s behind the fifth-placed driver, on his return to the WRC. His strong performances (two second fastest times) were somewhat obscured by a ten-second penalty for arriving late at a time control. Unfortunately, Craig ran into trouble the following day, spelling the end of his rally, whilst his split times showed he was keeping pace with the future rally winner on the first run on Cuchilla Nevada – Rio Pintos, the weekend's longest stage... Up to that point, Craig had produced a strong performance, especially for someone whose only previous appearance here was cut very short in 2017. Aware of how important securing a podium was for the team, Kris Meeke opted against all-out attack to hold off the comeback of Neuville. He had a tight hold on third place, with a 16.2s lead over the fourth-placed driver, when he suffered a puncture on the second pass on the same stage. After losing almost 2m 30s, the C3 WRC adorned with the Union Jack – which had been unerringly consistent and fast up to that point – saw its hopes of what would have been the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT's third podium of the season evaporate. However, the team once again showed its strength of character on Sunday, fully committed to the cause despite the obvious frustration, focusing already on set-up testing for the next event. Meanwhile, Khalid Al Qassimi, fourteenth on his first competitive outing this year in the C3 WRC, following a long period out of action – at least in conventional rallying – made his contribution in the hunt for manufacturers' championship points.
QUESTIONS FOR PIERRE BUDAR, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
What is your analysis of this Argentinian round?
It is bound to be poor, if we focus on just the results themselves. Nevertheless, the outcome doesn't reflect the performances we delivered – especially by Kris – and the C3 WRC once again showed just how competitive it is at an event where we really struggled last year. Similarly, we can also be pleased with how incredibly reliable the car was, as it has been since the start of the season, despite this rally being one of the roughest, if not the roughest, in the championship.
So this shows that the upgrades introduced at this round have been effective?
Yes, the new rear axle homologated for this round had the desired effect, especially on the confidence of the drivers in the car, and that confirms that we have chosen the right options to continue to develop and improve the car. We also used Sunday's leg to explore, in full racing conditions, some slightly different ideas for the set-up, which will undoubtedly be beneficial for the next few rounds. Based on this information, and what we learned during our six days of on-site testing, we are already focused on defining the set-up for Portugal, with the aim of securing final positions more in keeping with our performance level.
How would you assess the performances of your drivers?
Craig had a tough time of it on his return to the WRC but we can be sure he'll come back stronger in Portugal. I'd like to congratulate Kris for his consistency. He didn't make any mistakes at all this weekend, despite being in the middle of an incredibly intense scrap at the front. He was simply unlucky with the puncture on a harmless-looking stone, of which there are so many at this round. There were a lot of punctures this weekend. It just so happens that Kris' came at the start of the longest stage, i.e. at the worst possible moment, which left him with no choice but to change the tyre. Lastly, coming from having competed in several cross-country rallies, Khalid can be pleased to finish his first rally of the year, whilst adding to the team's haul of manufacturers' points.
With stages littered with embedded rocks and covered at average speeds approaching 120kph, providing the cars with a very serious examination of their reliability and strength, day one of Rally Argentina is always a daunting challenge for the drivers and teams. Citroen experienced first hand just how punishing it can be last year on the Santa Rosa – San Agustin stage (23.85km). This year, on Friday's leg, Kris Meeke showed he was immediately on the pace by grabbing the second fastest time on the first run on the stage, just 2.9s behind the future dominant winner, taking him into third place. This just goes to show the substantial improvements made by the Citroën C3 WRC, and how the team has managed to constantly increase the car's operating window.