As the final all-asphalt round of the season, the event offers a challenging route. From undulating forest tracks to fast country roads and steep inclines through the Vosges mountains, precision-driving and all-out commitment are a must.
Since the fixture moved to its current base in the north-east of France, M-Sport has achieved a strong track record. Despite the rally being dominated by the country’s local heroes, the Cumbrian outfit has claimed at least 50 per cent of the overall top-ten including an impressive 70 per cent in 2011.
The Qatari backed squad will be hoping for more of the same next week, but with Sébastien Loeb’s return and Sébastien Ogier keen to wrap up the drivers’ championship, glory will be hard fought.
Rarely fazed by the prospect of a hard-fought battle, the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC of Mads Østberg should not be discounted for a strong result. Asphalt may not be his preferred surface, but with a fifth place finish on last year’s outing, the Norwegian will be looking for another top-five result in 2013.
In the sister Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta RS WRC, Evgeny Novikov and Ilka Minor will be eager to build on their solid performance at Rally Australia. Proving that he can finish events without incident, the thousands of fans that flood to the stages around Strasbourg can look forward to the Russian’s usual dose of ‘maximum attack’ as he aims to combine consistency with his customary speed.
One man who is certainly capable of upsetting the status quo is Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville. As the one driver able to halt Ogier’s charge to the championship, Neuville has been sensational this season and with another all-asphalt fixture, the Belgian will be keen to add another podium to his rapidly growing collection. The Belgian is determined to battle with ‘the Sebs’; and with their recent results as they are, there would be few to bet against the Fiesta RS WRC of Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul being in the hunt for trophies.
Whereas most crews return to asphalt following the gravel tracks of Australia, Neuville will spend the weekend getting back into the swing of Tarmac rallying when he contests the East Belgian Rally with a Floral Racing Ford Fiesta R2.
One man who knows how to challenge the French on the Alsatian stages is Elfyn Evans. Proving that the Welsh don’t just have the edge when it comes to rugby, Evans wrapped up the FIA WRC Academy Cup with victory on the event last year. Returning alongside co-driver Daniel Barritt, the Welshman will have another victory in mind – this time behind the wheel of his Ford Fiesta R5 in the WRC 2 category.
Since his last outing in Germany, Evans attended the UK’s premier rally show – Rallyday at Wiltshire’s Castle Combe circuit. Piloting a Fiesta RS WRC, the young star wowed the crowds with his skills behind the wheel – something he will be keen to replicate for the French fans next week.
Mads Østberg said:
“Germany was a difficult event for us, so it is important that we take what we learnt there forward to France. That will be the first task. Last year we were a lot faster in France than we were in Germany so that is something to focus on.
“The weather is always key. If it rains, then there will be a lot of mud on the stages – which is what we saw last year. But even when the weather is fine it is a really challenging event so I think it will be an interesting rally with a lot of drivers going for victory!
“For us, heading back to Tarmac, I think we just need to concentrate on getting through all the stages and securing a top-five result or higher. A top-five finish will be a good result for us, and I don’t want to hope for anything more until we see where our pace will be.
“This will also be Jonas’ [Andersson, co-driver] 100th WRC event, so a big congratulations to him. As well as having a lot of tattoos, he is also an extremely good co-driver. He has a lot of experience and has helped me a lot over the past four years. I only hope that I can bring him another 100 events!”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“I am feeling really good ahead of this event. We proved in Australia that we can make it through all the stages without a mistake, so now we want to couple that with upping the speed and hopefully taking home a top-five result.
“France is one of my favourite Tarmac events. The weather can make the event a real challenge, so we hope it will stay fine. The route is quite technical so you need to have very good pacenotes and ensure that you have a clever recce. Fortunately, I have a very good gravel crew to help me throughout the event, so I hope it could be a good event for us.”
Thierry Neuville said:
“I have a really good feeling ahead of this rally, especially as we will be returning to asphalt. We saw in Germany how competitive the [Ford] Fiesta [RS WRC] is on Tarmac so we will be hoping to harness that potential once again next week.
“It’s a challenging rally, especially when it rains. We saw last year that there were some big cuts and a lot of mud in places, so I think road position will be key, especially over the second pass.
“As I said in Australia, I would like to be able to take the fight to ‘the Sebs’ but we will need to think cleverly and see where we are after the first day. I am sure both of them [Ogier and Loeb] will be going flat-out and we need to keep an eye on Jari-Matti [Latvala]. Ultimately, we want to maintain our second place in the championship and that is something we will need to be aware of throughout the rally.”
Elfyn Evans said:
“Having put a good performance together in Germany, I’m hoping that we can show more of the same in France. We had a really good battle with Robert [Kubica] and we’ll be looking to take the fight to him again next week.
“This is a rally I know reasonably well and I have done well here in the past – wrapping up the [FIA] WRC Academy with a win last year and piloting the [Ford] Fiesta R2 to a then record-breaking 16th place in 2011.
“However, a lot can depend on the weather. If it rains, then the route can become extremely difficult. Although a lot has been done in recent years to prevent mud being dragged onto the racing line, it is inevitable in bad conditions, and if it happens this year we will need to be extra vigilant as the surface can become treacherously slippery.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team