Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville powered into the lead of Rallye de France-Alsace today. Thanks to an inspired tyre strategy from the team, the young Belgian is well and truly in the hunt for securing a maiden victory in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC).
Despite some slight time loss on the opening test (SS2), Neuville regrouped brilliantly over the following stages. With a diagonal configuration of Michelin’s hard and soft compound tyres for the 34.34 kilometres of ‘Vosges – Pays d’Omont 1’ (SS4), the Belgian was on top form. Trading fastest splits throughout the drying stage, he and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul posted the second fastest time – some 20 seconds faster than the WRC’s newly crowned champion Sébastien Ogier.
As for the afternoon loop, Neuville was in a class of his own. Whereas others predicted rain, the Qatar M-Sport team got their weather reports spot on. With the optimum tyre choice, the Belgian posted the fastest time on all of the afternoon’s three stages. Utilising the harder compound rubber to full effect, the Qatari outfit’s rising star goes into tomorrow’s stages with a 9.9 second lead over Dani Sordo, reviving the memory of the pairing’s epic battle at Rallye Deutschland last month.
In the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, the Alsace weather played havoc with Evgeny Novikov’s opening loop as the Russian elected to clad his Fiesta RS WRC with Michelin’s harder tyre. Yet despite being somewhat disadvantaged, the Russian set some promising times.
Following the example of their fellow Qatar M-Sport crews, Novikov and co-driver Ilka Minor once again opted for the harder compound for the second pass and were immediately on the pace – setting the third fastest time though ‘Klevener 2’ (SS5). On course for another strong result, the Muscovite currently holds sixth place overall.
In the sister Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta, the weather also proved pivotal for Mads Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson. Suffering from the worst of the rain through SS2, the Norwegian took a cautious approach – minimising any risk to complete the morning loop in ninth place overall. Continuing his measured approach through the afternoon, Østberg strengthened his top-ten position on his least preferred surface. Gaining experience of the sealed-surface roads, he and Andersson will be aiming to increase their knowledge with another clean run tomorrow.
Elsewhere, in WRC 2, Elfyn Evans and co-driver Dan Barritt showed early promise. Piloting their Ford Fiesta R5 to second place, the pairing were building their pace for a full-on attack as the day progressed. Unfortunately, the Welshman was forced to stop and change a tyre which cost him over two and a half minutes.
Despite falling down to fifth place, Evans has the better of the majority of his rivals – setting a string of second fastest times through the remainder of the day. Second only to ex-Formula 1 ace Robert Kubica, the 2012 FIA WRC Academy cup winner recovered his second place and is on course for another podium finish.
Thierry Neuville (1st) said:
“It has been a perfect afternoon for us. We had faultless information from the team and our weather crews – so a big congratulations to them because we would not be in first place if it was not for them! I felt really comfortable and we were able to push without taking any big risks. I felt confident all day.
“It will be a new experience for me running first on the road. I have never been first [on the road] on Tarmac so I will have to learn quickly. I will have to make my own lines and I won’t have the benefit of seeing the other drivers’ braking points and if there is standing water it could be difficult. But I am happy to be in first place this evening, and we will just have to wait and see if I am still holding this position tomorrow.”
Evgeny Novikov (6th) said:
“The afternoon has been OK, and this time we were on the right tyres for the conditions. I feel like we are driving well and that we are learning and improving our confidence with each new stage. There is still a long way to go in this event, so we will just have to wait and see what tomorrow brings.”
Mads Østberg (9th) said:
“After service we managed to increase the speed a little bit – that was the intention and that was good. We were a lot better on the first stage this afternoon [SS5] and then we were able to maintain that pace for the second one [SS6]. The plan was to try to increase [the pace] again during the long stage [SS7] but unfortunately we had some small issues with the brakes. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I lost the ‘bite’ on the front and had a lot more in the rear which was difficult at times.
“Although the driving is improving, the times aren’t necessarily where we want them to be. But we can work on that, and we will try again tomorrow.”
Elfyn Evans (2nd in WRC 2) said:
“This afternoon hasn’t been bad at all. The first stage wasn’t brilliant and we lost a little bit of time to Robert [Kubica] towards the end of the second stage [SS6], but the long stage wasn’t bad at all. We didn’t take any risks but managed to find a really good feeling with the car. We’re definitely moving in the right direction, and we’ll look to keep learning and consolidate this second place tomorrow.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“It’s been a great drive by Thierry [Neuville] and Nicolas [Gilsoul] but also a great performance from the entire team. Everyone played a part. From the weather prediction to the tyre choice, the whole team has been on top form and that is what makes our current position possible.
“We are likely to see some really challenging conditions tomorrow, so it will be a difficult day. This will be Thierry’s first experience of being first on the road on Tarmac, but judging by his performance today, he is in a great position to continue the fight.”