The Qatar and Qatar M-Sport World Rally Teams were struck by cruel misfortune as the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) continued in Portugal today. Both Thierry Neuville and Elfyn Evans were forced to retire for the day but there were strong performances from the remaining crews. ‘Road-sweeper’ Mads Østberg set a fantastic pace to climb from 56th to 12th over the course of the day and Evgeny Novikov, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Dennis Kuipers are going well in fourth, fifth and seventh places respectively.
Team-mate Al-Attiyah was enjoying better fortune. On course for a second top-five finish of the season, the Qatari has improved his pace throughout the day and lies a creditable fifth going into tomorrow’s final day.
Enjoying his return to the WRC, fellow Qatar World Rally Team driver Kuipers was also setting some solid times. Securing his place in the top-ten, the Dutchman has improved his pace throughout and is on course to secure a good points-scoring finish on his first WRC event in over a year.
Meanwhile in the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, despite struggling to find the rhythm to match his usual pace, Novikov is contesting an intelligent rally. Keeping his Ford Fiesta RS WRC firmly on the road, the Muscovite is lying in fourth place – ready and eager to pounce should the front-runners falter.
Additionally, albeit somewhat bitter sweet for the team, former rally leader Østberg was displaying pace which could have so easily challenged for victory were it not for yesterday’s off road excursion. Disadvantaged running first on the road, the Norwegian posted a string of top-four times – beaten only by the rally leaders who benefited from better conditions some eight cars further down the field.
Alas in WRC 2, Evans’ day was to end the same way as Neuville’s albeit through no fault of his own. Holding second place in the category, the Welshman was impressing on his four-wheel-drive debut in the world series before an issue with the transmission on his Ford Fiesta RRC halted his charge.
Evgeny Novikov (4th) said:
“Fourth place is a good position so I have to be happy with that. But honestly, I am not happy with the times. I am pushing to the maximum but something just isn’t working for us this weekend. There’s not so much we can do about the guys in front of us because the gaps are too big, but if we keep this rhythm tomorrow who knows what might happen.”
Nasser Al-Attiyah (5th) said:
“Today has been a good day for us. Everything has been working well and I feel as though we are improving with each new stage. Obviously there is still a long way to go with the long stages tomorrow [SS13 and SS15], but if we can hold this position it will be another fantastic result for us.”
Dennis Kuipers (7th) said:
“Today went very well and I have a good feeling with the car. OK, the stages are rough but we managed to stay out of trouble and I’ve really enjoyed the day. We took it steady over the last stage [SS6] and didn’t take any big risks. We’re in a really good position now so I hope we can continue like this tomorrow and bring home what will be a great result for us.”
Mads Østberg (12th) said:
“Obviously it’s a little difficult running first on the road, but that’s the way it is at the moment. The second pass was a bit trickier because, whereas on the first pass I can make my own lines and the grip is quite even, the lines on the second pass are clearly not made for a world rally car. There is also a fine layer of sand on the top of the bedrock which is really slippery in a few places.
“Having said that I think we have had a really good drive today. I was happy with our performance and, although it’s difficult when you are fighting out of position, I think we have had really good pace considering where we were on the road.”
Thierry Neuville (32nd / Rally 2) said:
“It was in a tight right-hand corner about seven or eight kilometres into the stage [SS6]. I felt that we were going off line and I tried to slow the car down but we were carrying too much speed and hit a tree with the front-right wheel. I tried to avoid it but we were sliding too much and there was nothing we could do. There was no damage on the car at all. Just one bent bolt which we were unable to fix ourselves.
“We decided this morning to keep the pressure on because many things can happen and we could have still been in the fight for a podium. It was a mistake on my part – I lost control and didn’t have the opportunity to correct it in time.
“Nicolas [Gilsoul, co-driver] and I have made some big improvements with the pacenotes and driving this year and I felt that we improved again this weekend. OK these things happen, but it should not be so often now!”
Elfyn Evans (12th in WRC 2 / Rally 2) said:
“It was a transmission failure. We lost the drive and unfortunately that meant that we couldn’t continue. It was an instant failure only about five kilometres into the stage so there was nothing we could do from there. We tried to have a look ourselves but unfortunately it’s a job for the technicians. They’ll have a look when the car gets back to service and hopefully have the car back on the stages tomorrow.
“I’m quite surprised at how well we were going before this morning. This weekend was always going to be quite a cautious one for us so I was really happy that we were able to set a good pace from the word go. We know now that we can be competitive in the WRC 2 category which is a big positive for the team going forward. Tomorrow we’ll concentrate on getting some more mileage in the car and building a good base from which to improve for the next event.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“Luck has not been on our side this weekend but the team is still holding a good position with Evgeny [Novikov] and Nasser [Al-Attiyah] in fourth and fifth. As you can see from today’s drama, anything can still happen.
“Thierry [Neuville] was ready to put the front-runners under pressure this morning and he was very unlucky to go off where he did. It’s a disappointment for the team, but we can see that he is continually improving. Elfyn’s [Evans] retirement was disappointing too. He was doing a great job in WRC 2 and, considering he had not driven the car before Shakedown on Thursday, his performance yesterday was an impressive one.”