THE CITROËN DS3s WRC KEEP PUSHING
Crossing Wales from the north to the south, day one of the Wales Rally GB proved to be just as difficult as had been feared. Lying third, 21.3s behind the leaders, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena are well placed to fight for the win. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are back in fifth place, but the Finnish contingent of the Citroën Total World Rally Team hasn’t thrown the towel in just yet!
Although the Wales Rally GB is mainly based in Cardiff, the first leg took place a long way from the Welsh capital. On Thursday evening, the competitors travelled to Llandudno for the ceremonial start, which also saw the crews choose their starting positions for Friday.
After leaving the shores of the Irish Sea before dawn, the drivers started their day with the Dyfnant, Hafren and Myherin stages. Fourth on SS1, Sébastien Loeb upped the pace on the next two stages. The eight-time World Champion ended the morning in second place, 3.3s behind Jari-Matti Latvala. “Initially, I thought I had made a mistake in choosing third position on the road,” explained Seb at the remote service in Newtown. “But I don’t think anyone has the secret formula and I felt that the conditions were pretty similar for everyone. In short, it’s very, very slippery! For the time being, it’s very close and everyone is going quickly. You have to remember that this is one of the few rallies that the four works drivers have all won.”
Down in fifth, around fifteen seconds adrift of Latvala, Mikko Hirvonen was more sceptical: “I don't really understand why we lost so much time. I have a good feeling in the car and I felt that I drove well. We are going to change the setup slightly this afternoon, to try and get some more traction.”
As had been the case in the morning, the Citroën Total World Rally Team crews fitted their DS3 WRCs with soft Michelin Latitude Cross tyres for the second loop. Less comfortable on SS5 and SS6, Sébastien Loeb lost second place to Petter Solberg: “There was even less grip than on the first run and these are clearly not the conditions in which we are most comfortable. Having said that, I certainly wasn’t looking to push beyond the limits, because first and foremost, we want to score points for the World Championships. The fact we had two spare wheels with us all day also cost us a few seconds. It wasn’t really necessary, because we didn’t have as much tyre wear as we had expected.”
Even more hampered by starting in second position in the running order, Mikko Hirvonen ended Friday’s leg back in fifth overall: “We are definitely short on grip on this fine layer of greasy mud. From my side, I made a mistake in trying to look after my tyres for the rest of the rally. I should have done the same as Seb and switched the tyres around for the last two stages. We’re going to keep going about our business in a relaxed manner. I think we can come back!”
“Our rivals were better than us today,” acknowledged Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “There are several factors which explain the differences in time: I think that the choice of starting positions weren‘t great, especially on the second runs. It is also probably true that our cars didn’t have the perfect set-up for these tricky, low-grip conditions. But Seb is only twenty seconds behind and we haven’t reached the halfway stage of the rally as yet...”
NEUVILLE STICKS TO HIS PLAN
In choosing to take first position in the running order, Thierry Neuville knew he might be faced with very difficult road conditions. With very little rainfall on the Welsh stages, the Belgian experienced a tough, but instructive day: “We learned a lot today on these very slippery stages! We really struggled, especially on the first run, because I hadn't taken very good paces notes. We made some good corrections and I enjoyed driving the car this afternoon. We have so far achieved our goal of not making any mistakes.”
In contrast, Nasser Al-Attiyah struggled for confidence in the Welsh forests and found himself back in thirteenth overall: “I changed my pace notes system before this rally and above all, I was trying to confirm that the new system works in race conditions. It was a very difficult day, with a few minor problems with the brakes and the power steering. That will all be sorted out at the service park this evening and we’ll continue to accumulate experience at this rally tomorrow.”