Thanks to a sensational performance by Thierry Neuville and Mads Østberg, Qatar M-Sport secured their first double podium today at Neste Oil Rally Finland. Having both led the rally, Neuville finished second with Østberg securing third overall.
Once again, it was the Qatar M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRCs that thrilled the crowds with an epic battle. Neuville and Østberg switched positions no fewer than seven times in their pursuit of the final podium spots, but come the final stage, it was the Belgian who prevailed.
Considering his lack of experience in the land of a thousand lakes, Qatar World Rally Team’s Neuville has arguably been the man of the rally this weekend. Despite prematurely forfeiting his second place by overshooting a junction on SS16, an outstanding time through Ouninpohja (SS18) saw the Belgian back in control of the fight.
Proving just how far he and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul have come with their Fiesta RS WRC, they obliterated their 2012 time – 0.1 seconds shy of local driver Mikko Hirvonen when compared to last year’s one minute and sixteen second deficit. But the celebrations would be short lived as Østberg had the advantage through the following test.
Going into the final afternoon, Neuville regained second place to bring his Fiesta home for a back-to-back personal best. To top-off a near-perfect weekend, the Belgian also scored top points in the Power Stage which sees him tied for second in the FIA World Rally Championship’s drivers’ standings.
However, it was not all plain sailing, as the young Belgian was made to work for his impressive result. Taking two stage victories over the morning loop, Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson were the men on the move.
When Neuville made a mistake on SS16, the second place belonged to the Norwegian. Although falling back to third with a slower run on Ouninpohja (SS18), the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team driver was in a class of his own on SS19. A full three seconds faster than anyone, the 25-year-old went into midday service with a 2.8-second advantage over his Belgian rival.
Despite his heroic efforts, Østberg’s hunt for the runner-up spoils came to a close 25 kilometres into the second pass of Ouninpohja (SS22). Encountering a large rock in the middle of the road, the Norwegian had no option but to take avoiding action to safeguard a double podium for the Qatar M-Sport teams.
Elsewhere, in the sister Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta, Evgeny Novikov and Ilka Minor were on damage limitation following a high-speed impact on Day 2. Using their time wisely to perfect pacenotes, the pairing improved throughout the day.
Keeping his Fiesta RS WRC firmly on the road, the Russian recovered sixth place and valuable points for his 2013 campaign. Needless to say, Novikov will be keen for a change of fortune as he looks to translate his clear speed into a solid result at the next event.
A fantastic weekend for M-Sport was rounded off with victory for the all-new Ford Fiesta R5 in the WRC 2 class. Thanks to a perfect drive from Jari Ketomaa, M-Sport continue their international debut winning streak following on from the Ford Focus RS WRC in 2006, the Ford Fiesta S2000 in 2010 and the Ford Fiesta RS WRC in 2011.
As the championship moves towards asphalt, the team are planning a comprehensive test to further build on their recent success as they pursue another top result in Germany.
Thierry Neuville (2nd): “I just love this car! The [Ford] Fiesta [RS WRC] has been faultless all weekend and we have had the confidence to push without taking any risks at all. OK, we were unlucky with the puncture yesterday, but I think we did a very good job.
“I was particularly happy with my run through Ouninpohja. It would have been nice to have taken the record, but the second place was most important and we decided to let Sébastien [Ogier] have that one!
“The M-Sport team did a fantastic job – to be beating the Finns here is not easy so to have two cars on the podium is a real achievement.”
Mads Østberg (3rd): “This result means a lot to me. It has been a long and difficult rally, but we have had no problems at all and I feel as though I really have my confidence back now.
“We didn’t take splits this weekend, but rather concentrated on our own pace without taking too many risks, and I think that strategy really worked for us. Obviously we were unlucky with the puncture yesterday and with the rock on SS22 today, but all in all it has been a really good event for us.
“It is such a good feeling to be finishing competitively again. We had a difficult start to the season, so I am pleased to be back in the game. It is really fantastic.”
Evgeny Novikov (6th): “Unfortunately this was not our best rally, but there were still some positives to take away. We showed some good pace in the beginning, and after the off on Day 2 we were able to check our notes to ensure that they are perfect for next year.
“Last year Denis [Giraudet] injured his back so I couldn’t push through all the stages. That meant that on stages like Ouninpohja, today was the first time for me driving at full speed – so we could really work on getting the notes right.
“It was good to get through the entire rally, and sixth place at the end is not such a bad result.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE: “It has been a truly amazing weekend for M-Sport, the Fiesta, our drivers and our entire team. Both Thierry [Neuville] and Mads [Østberg] were leading the rally and Thierry finished off a perfect weekend with top marks in the Power Stage. He is now equal second in the championship which just goes to show how comfortable he has become behind the wheel of the Fiesta.
“It has been great team work from the entire team. The test team did a fantastic job last week to ensure the drivers came here full of confidence, and this week everyone has really pulled together to secure the result.
“Also, what a debut for the [Ford] Fiesta R5! I am extremely proud of everyone’s work on this project and it means that we can continue our winning streak of debuting new cars at international level.”