A First Leg With Far-Reaching Implications
Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT had a strong start to Rally Portugal, by winning three out of Friday's six proper stages. The team looked once again like it would make a serious challenge for overall victory, but then paid a heavy price for three unfortunate punctures. This ruined the hopes of a podium finish on the first full day of rallying, leaving the crews to act as road-sweepers for the rest of the weekend.
THE STORY OF THE RALLY
After spending so many years surveying the stages of the World Rally Championship, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT's engineers are familiar with the specific features of each stage. Therefore, they had quickly identified that Friday’s leg would be the most decisive stage of the weekend.
The engineers turned out to be right and although, unlike many competitors, all three Citroën C3 WRCs made it safely to the end of the leg, the team's weekend was immediately and irreversibly compromised by three costly punctures.
However, it had all started so well, with Kris Meeke brimming with confidence and moving into third position, just 2.2 seconds behind the leader, on the first proper stage. He even grabbed the lead on the next speed test as he claimed the stage win, before briefly relinquishing it. He then reclaimed first position at the start of the afternoon as he picked up another stage win (SS5). It looked like the Northern Irishman was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the fight for the overall win.
Craig Breen was determined not to be left out of the party, however, collecting his own stage win (SS6), just as Kris picked up a puncture. The misfortune would have gone almost unnoticed had Kris not been hit by a second puncture on SS7, whilst Craig, third overall at the time just 4.4 seconds off the pace, also saw one of his tyres suddenly lose pressure after hitting one of the many embedded rocks loosened by cars running through the stages.
Meeke was forced to complete the long road section and the evening's two super special stages effectively with just three tyres, whilst Breen had to stop to change the flat tyre mid-stage. Both drivers therefore lost precious time and found themselves down in seventh and eighth position at the end of day one, 1 minute and 18.7 seconds, and 2 minutes and 27.3 seconds back respectively.
Meanwhile, Mads Østberg made an encouraging debut on gravel in the C3 WRC, finishing the first leg in sixth place. However, faced with the unenviable task of running first on the road for the next two days – and therefore sweeping the loose gravel and sand off the road surface – Mads Østberg and Craig Breen were unable to finish any higher than sixth and seventh overall, whilst Kris Meeke unfortunately went off the road on Saturday, spelling the end of his weekend.
QUESTIONS FOR PIERRE BUDAR, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
What is your analysis of this difficult weekend?
“The three punctures picked up on Friday ruined our rally. The rules state that the standings at the end of day one are inverted to define the running order on Saturday and the same again for Sunday. As a result, we ended up spending two days running first on the road and therefore sweeping the fine layer of sand and gravel clear for the rest of the field. Given the lack of grip, moving back up the standings was simply impossible. We therefore decided to work on the set-up of the C3 WRC in these sorts of low grip conditions to prepare for the future. Before picking up his two punctures, Kris had been in the lead twice and had also claimed two stage wins whilst Craig, who also won one stage, was running third when he had his puncture. When we were fighting on equal terms with our rivals, once again we were competitive, whilst enjoying exemplary reliability.”
What do you think about the performances of your drivers?
“Obviously, it's a shame that Kris made a mistake, but I'm most of all pleased that he and Paul came away from their crash more or less unharmed. It just goes to show that our designers do an extraordinary job in constantly improving the on-board safety of the cars. Once again, Kris was very fast. Above all, he was very comfortable in his C3 WRC and that's an important point for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Mads initially struggled to find the right set-up, before then gradually upping his pace and ending up feeling ready to push. He used this first rally on gravel in the C3 WRC to understand the car, so that he can get into his stride from the word go in Sardinia. Finally, Craig was slightly hesitant to start with, before quickly showing that he was also on the pace, which suggests that he has put his misfortune in Argentina well and truly behind him. He then did the job at hand and learnt to deal with this tough position of being first on the road.”
What is the team's state of mind?
“Although we are going through a period where we're not getting the results we hoped for and perhaps deserve, the team remains united, and very committed too, especially as we all know that we have the speed. We are all now preparing together to go again at the next round of the championship in Sardinia, convinced that we'll be in with a good chance there once again.”
The statistics of the C3 WRC speak for themselves: six rallies into the season that began in January at Monte, it has topped the timesheets at five rounds, including Portugal, the total now standing at eighteen stage wins. It is therefore abundantly clear that the car is competitive on all surfaces. After Meeke's Power Stage victory on Monte's tricky mountain roads, Breen then grabbed three fastest times on the Swedish snow. Loeb and Meeke claimed a total of eight stage wins on the dusty, hot roads of Mexico, which are also high above sea level, before Loeb again topped the timesheets on three occasions on the atypical Corsican tarmac. In Portugal, on the opening leg's particularly sandy, rough stages, Kris claimed two stage wins whilst Craig took one (together tied with Neuville).