Qatar M-Sport will be looking to translate their pace into a strong result next week as the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) ventures to the fifth round of the season at the Philips Rally Argentina. Leading the team’s voyage to South America, youngsters Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov and Thierry Neuville will be hoping their speed pays dividends.
Regarded by many as one of the most challenging rounds of the year, the soft gravel tests which meander through the breathtaking Cordobese Mountains hide a sinister side. Punctures caused by unsighted rocks are a constant threat and the technical nature of the stages demand perfect synchronisation from the crews throughout the enduring four-day event.
With just four days to transform the team’s fleet of Ford Fiesta RS WRCs, M-Sport’s technicians have been working tirelessly to get the cars prepped and caged ready for their air-freight to Argentina. But the hard work will hopefully prove fruitful and, with his Fiesta fully rebuilt for the event, Østberg will be aiming for a top result next week.
Despite contesting the event on only two previous occasions, the Norwegian’s track record is a good one. Securing a fifth place finish on their debut in 2011, Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson went on to claim the third step on the podium in 2012 and – given their impressive pace this season – the Scandinavians will be looking to mirror that success by fighting to increase their tally of top-three finishes. ‘Russian Rocket’ Novikov spent his time in competition last week as he got behind the wheel of a Ford Focus RS WRC ’09 for the Rally Masters Show in Moscow. Partnered by co-driver Ilka Minor, the Muscovite flew to victory for the second year in succession – delighting the home crowd in the process.
Contrary to his young age, it was in 2008 that Novikov first made an impact on the Argentine stages. But his most inspiring performance came in 2012. Despite damaging his Fiesta RS WRC on Day 1, the Russian fought back admirably. Accompanied by his customary dose of ‘maximum attack’, the youngster recorded a string of top-three stage times – stamping his authority as a real star of the future and recovering a creditable eighth place finish.
Another youngster shining on the Argentine stages last year was Neuville – a feat made all the more poignant by the fact it was the Belgian’s debut in South America. One of only four drivers to secure a fastest stage time, Neuville claimed what was then a career best fifth place – a statistic he later trumped, most notably, with a maiden podium finish in Mexico last month.
Following a disappointing result in Portugal, Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul are now focused on channelling their speed and finishing all of the championship’s next three rounds. The Belgian has been karting of late to ensure he maintains a good rhythm ahead of next week’s event and was lucky enough to test drive the new Ford Fiesta ST road car at the Blue Oval’s testing ground at Lommel in Belgium.
Mads Østberg said:
“Our goal will be to fight for a podium next week. Given the season so far, it is important for us to get some good points and make sure we’re still in the game. Obviously we still want to win rallies and Argentina is historically a good event for us so we’ll push hard, but the most important thing will be to finish well.
“Argentina is a challenging rally for sure. The weather is very changeable – you can have sun on the plains but then when you get up into the mountains there is a high risk of fog and rain – so you need to be able to adapt your driving style to suit every condition.
“But one of the biggest challenges is the long stages. Generally we’re used to a few long stages mixed in with a lot of shorter ones, but on this event it is pretty much all long stages which makes it a real rally of endurance.”
Our goal will be to fight for a podium next week
Evgeny Novikov said:
“I’ve been to this event [Rally Argentina] a few times now and it’s really enjoyable with lots of really enthusiastic fans. The biggest challenge for us is the changing nature of the stages and the really long tests mean that we will need to have a really good line all weekend. It’s a lot of fun, I just hope that our pace is better than it was in Portugal. The end result was a good one, but I wasn’t satisfied with our speed and we need to make sure we put that right on the first stage next week.
“Ilka [Minor, co-driver] and I were driving a [Ford] Focus [RS WRC '09] at the Rally Masters Show last weekend. It’s a great event. There was a proper Tarmac stage set-up near Moscow and lots of people came out to see us. It’s great to see that rallying is growing in Russia and I think we put on a good show. I’m sure the fans were happy to see a Russian on the top-step of the podium!”
Thierry Neuville said:
“My goal for the next three rallies is simple – get to the end of each one. These next few events will be the most important for me. They’re all really tough, challenging events for the cars and drivers so I need to make sure I get the maximum experience from each one.
“The stages in Argentina are quite sandy so hopefully punctures won’t be as big a threat as they are on some of the other events – you just need to make sure you look out for any big rocks which have been pulled onto the stage. The real challenge is the length of the stages. Other than the Super Specials, the majority are all around 30 km or longer – the longest is over 50 km – so you need to really look after the tyres and keep your concentration.
“Since Portugal I’ve been karting which is really good fun and helps me keep the rhythm between events – it was also a good way of putting the disappointment from Portugal behind me! I also went to Lommel [Ford’s testing ground] with Ford Belgium to test drive the new [Ford] Fiesta ST [road car]. It’s an incredible car that you can really have a lot of fun with. The brakes are really impressive and I think it will be the perfect car to cruise around in of a weekend.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team