A SENSATIONAL RETURN FOR LOEB AS MEEKE HOLDS HIS OWN!
With four stage wins between them, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT crews were one of the dominant forces in today's first proper day of racing. Whilst Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena ended the day second overall, confirming that they had lost none of their talent, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle completed the leg in fourth, ready to weigh in on the fight for the podium places.
Today's first proper leg was a day full of superlatives: a total competitive distance of 155.15 kilometres in nine stages, ground temperatures close to forty-five degrees and the altitude peaking at 2,739 metres above sea level on the Ortega test. In other words, a real heavyweight challenge for crews and mechanics alike.
In these extreme conditions, two men – Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena – were in particularly impressive form, as the pair staged a remarkable return to the WRC! After setting the third fastest time on the opening stage, the nine-time world rally champions then went on to record a second fastest time, just 1.9s off the stage-winning time on SS4, as they made the most of their eleventh position on the road this morning to reach midday service in third overall. However, they upped their pace again in the afternoon behind the wheel of their C3 WRC. Despite the grip conditions being more even for everyone, they topped the timesheets on two successive tests (SS7 and SS8) – their first stage wins since Monte-Carlo 2015 – to move up into second position. Their performance was all the more remarkable given that El Chocolate, where they claimed the first of their stage wins, was one of the tests they were contesting for the first time this weekend.
With a slightly less favourable position in the running order (7th) this morning, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle also made an excellent start, claiming the first stage win of the day. However, their bold tyre choice (3 Michelin soft compounds and two hard tyres) did not really pay off, as the rest of the field went for five soft tyres. The winners of last year's rally nonetheless made it to midday service in second place. They began the afternoon loop with another stage win, confirming their good form, but then spins on two consecutive stages (SS7 and SS8) saw them drop back into fourth overall. A place that means that they will still have a good road position tomorrow (5th) and which – like Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, who will be seventh in the running order – enables them to aim for a podium spot.
There are still many difficulties ahead, however, with Saturday's leg featuring another nine stages and a competitive distance of more than a hundred and forty kilometres.
WHAT THEY SAID
Pierre Budar, Citroën Racing Team Principal
"It has been a great day for our team! No offence intended to Sébastien and Daniel but I think it's fair to say they were not expected to produce such a strong performance. They had an exceptional day in the C3 WRC, which clearly suits them very well. Kris and Paul are also right in the mix, and despite a couple of spins, they managed to put themselves in a good position for the huge battle that tomorrow's leg promises to bring. But there is so little between the crews and there are so many difficulties ahead that in some ways, it's a new race that is about to start."
"Without the less-than-perfect tyre choice this morning and my two silly mistakes this afternoon, we could have been right up there at the front, so it's a bit frustrating. But that's life. The main thing is that our speed is good and I really enjoyed driving my C3 WRC. There is still a long way to go. I'm certainly going to keep pushing and let's see how things work out."
"Overall, clearly, it has been a very good opening leg! I didn't know what to expect before coming but we are here in second, not far off the lead, so I'm delighted to be on the pace after six years away from Mexico. We're now going to try and maintain the same pace, but I know it won't be easy. Tänak is very close behind, in particular, and we know he's very good in the quick stages!"
STANDINGS AFTER DAY 2
- Sordo / Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 WRC) 1:47:55.4
- Loeb / Elena (Citroën C3 WRC) + 7.2
- Tänak / Jarveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 11.0
- Meeke / Nagle (Citroën C3 WRC) + 25.0
- Ogier / Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) + 30.2
- Mikkelsen / Jaeger (Hyundai i20 WRC) + 31.7
- Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) + 2:01.9
- Tidemand / Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) + 5:05.6