One of the dominant forces on today’s opening leg with three stage wins, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT crews Kris Meeke – Paul Nagle and Craig Breen – Scott Martin saw their hopes of a strong result seriously compromised by punctures, whilst Mads Østberg – Torstein Eriksen ended the day in an encouraging sixth place on their debut on gravel in the C3 WRC.
Expected to be the decisive leg of the rally due to the tendency of its stages to break up and become irreversibly rutted, day one proved to be even more devastating than predicted, with several drivers having to retire.
The C3 WRC, however, once again demonstrated its competitiveness and strength, claiming three stage wins (two for Meeke, one for Breen) from the day’s six proper speed tests. A performance that reflected its versatility and the ability of the team to adapt its set-up to the changing road conditions.
But unfortunately, the Red Army’s luck ran out again on the final real stage of the day (SS7). Kris Meeke, twice the rally leader during the day, and Craig Breen, third at that point just 4.4s off the pace, were both hit with punctures at the same time. Having already picked up a puncture on the previous stage, Kris was forced to contest the remaining two super special stages with only three wheels intact, but managed nonetheless to hang onto seventh position (+1:18.7) at the end of the leg, whilst Craig, who lost 2:24.6 with his misfortune, dropped down to eighth overall (+2:27.3).
Gradually upping his pace throughout the day on his first gravel outing in the C3 WRC, Mads Østberg made it to service this evening in sixth place. And his second fastest time on SS5, just 0.8s off the pace over its twenty-seven kilometres, augurs well for the rest the rally.
The rest of the rally starts, of course, tomorrow as the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT crews tackle the longest leg (154.64km over six stages). Craig Breen, Kris Meeke and Mads Østberg will all be determined to keep fighting as they tackle the stages from first, second and third positions on the road respectively…
WHAT THEY SAID
Pierre Budar, Citroën Racing Team Principal
“We are the only team that managed to end the leg with all three cars still in the race. That shows ours reliability, but unfortunately the standings don’t reflect our level of performance. With five hard Michelin tyres, I think we made the right call on tyre choice for the afternoon, but we then had these punctures, which proved so costly for Kris and Craig. I’d like thank Kris and Paul for having managed the minor miracle of making it back to service in their C3 WRC and also acknowledge the progress made by Mads.”
“It was a difficult day for us. It had all started so well, I felt so good in the car and we were leading the rally. But in the afternoon, I picked up two separate punctures – I’ve no idea where – and suddenly things were a lot more complicated. In order not to break the rules, which say that you can’t drive on the wheel rims during the road sections, we had to manage the two flat tyres as best we could. In running second on the road tomorrow on the stages that will clean the most this weekend, I’m going to suffer for sure, but you can count on me to fight all the way and give it everything.”
“Obviously, it’s been a frustrating day for us. We had really got back into our stride again this afternoon. Without the puncture, we could potentially have been leading the rally tonight. I’ll be first on the road tomorrow, but I’ll be doing my utmost to limit the damage.”
“After an up and down morning where I made a few set-up mistakes, I really enjoyed it this afternoon. The car was really perfect to drive, after the team made changes in service. We stopped on the road where Paddon had his accident to see if we could help, so we didn’t contest the longest stage of the day, but that wasn’t the most important thing at the time. The conditions remind me of the Acropolis Rally, in Greece. It was so rough out there today, but we made it to the end of the leg and we’re going to try and do even better in the rest of the rally.”
STANDINGS AFTER DAY 1
Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) 1:37:30.7
Evans / Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) + 17.7
Sordo / Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 WRC) + 24.3
Suninen / Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) + 34.4
Lappi / Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) + 45.8
Ostberg / Eriksen (Citroën C3 WRC) + 48.3
Meeke / Nagle (Citroën C3 WRC) + 1:18.7
Breen / Martin (Citroën C3 WRC) ) + 2:27.3