The Qatar M-Sport squad put in a solid performance in the penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) at RallyRACC Rally de España this weekend with the Cumbrian outfit’s range of Ford Fiesta rally cars accounting for 60 per cent of the overall top-ten.
Having been on course for another podium before a puncture put paid to his efforts, Thierry Neuville finished the event in fourth position with Evgeny Novikov fifth, Mads Østberg sixth and Hayden Paddon completing his competitive debut in a new-generation world rally car in eighth place respectively.
There was a mission in store for the Qatar M-Sport technicians yesterday evening as they converted the fleet of Ford Fiestas from their asphalt to gravel specification – ready for today’s loose-surface tests.
Despite this being done during the longest service of the year, the team had to work quickly in near perfect synchronisation. Changing everything from the suspension components, gearboxes and brakes to the jack foot height and sumpguards, the transformation of each car was completed in just 75 minutes.
But as low sun and hanging dust played havoc with the status quo, it looked as though he and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul would have a fight on their hands, and when they picked up a right-rear puncture through the first pass of ‘Pesells 1’ (SS11), they found themselves relegated to fifth place overall.
Determined as always, Neuville was focused on recovering as many points as possible for his championship campaign. With his adversary, Jari-Matti Latvala, finishing second – and taking just one point from the points-paying Power Stage – the Belgian’s fourth place and Power Stage victory was enough to see his advantage reduced by just four points. With a 14-point margin going into the final round, the 25-year-old will be resolute on maintaining the upper hand. In the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, Novikov and co-driver Ilka Minor continued their good run through the Spanish terrain. Keeping his Fiesta RS WRC firmly planted to the stages, the Muscovite found the perfect balance between being cautious when necessary and unleashing his customary dose of ‘maximum attack’ when comfortable.
Having set some strong times over the course of the event, Novikov was combining speed with a clever and considered approach. His strategy paid dividends, and he and Minor added another top-five finish to their 2013 tally.
Progressing on the loose-surface terrain, Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson were demonstrating their true potential behind the wheel. Benefiting from a better road position on the morning stages, the Norwegian was back where he belonged – posting top-three stage times on two of the three stages.
As the road cleaned for the afternoon loop, Østberg remained on form – piloting his Fiesta RS WRC to another hat-trick of top-three stage times to secure sixth place overall.
In the third Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta RS WRC, Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were finding their feet on what was their first taste of a modern world rally car. With no gravel testing, it was somewhat of a baptism of fire for the New Zealander.
Adapting the set-up to suit his driving style for the afternoon loop, Paddon upped the pace. Comfortably in the top-ten on individual stage times, the youngster finished his competitive debut in the Fiesta with a creditable eighth place finish.
Elsewhere, in WRC 2, there was disappointment for Elfyn Evans and Daniel Barritt. Recovering well from yesterday’s final stage incident, the pairing were on course to climb the leader board with a second fastest time through the first stage of the day (SS10). Unfortunately the duo would go no further as their Ford Fiesta R5 developed a clutch issue before the first pass of ‘Pesells’ (SS11).
With just one round remaining in this year’s FIA World Rally Championship, the team are now focussed on securing a good result on home soil at Wales Rally GB – a favoured hunting ground for both the team and their young crews.
Thierry Neuville (4th) said:
“Most importantly we have only lost four points to Jari-Matti [Latvala] in the championship, even if I think we could have done better – especially on the Tarmac. OK, we didn’t feel 100 per cent confident with the set-up, but when we made some changes on Saturday afternoon we were able to set fastest times and win the Power Stage. All of these are positive things.
“Also don’t forget that this was the first time for us in the stages today. Especially with the dust, the conditions were very difficult which meant that checking the pacenotes wasn’t easy. At the same time, it was the first time for us doing a rally where a strategy can pay.
“We maybe didn’t see our best performance here this weekend, but we have certainly learnt a lot and it wasn’t a bad weekend by all means.”
Evgeny Novikov (5th) said:
“I am quite happy with our performance this weekend. We pushed to the maximum when we felt confident and played it clever when the conditions were a bit more tricky and I think that that was a good strategy for us. We were able to set some good times and to finish in the top-five which was my goal for this weekend.”
Mads Østberg (6th) said:
“I am very happy and very relieved this afternoon. The last few months have been quite difficult and I was really struggling to find the rhythm and get in the right frame of mind. It is so nice to start the day and be fast – to have the confidence, enjoy the ride, know you’re not going to make a mistake and still be fast. It’s a very good feeling. I’ve had this feeling before, but it has been some time so I am very happy to be back at the top, at least on gravel.”
Hayden Paddon (8th) said:
“Of course it is good to get to the finish as that was obviously one of our goals. This weekend has been a big learning curve for us though. We were a bit disappointed with how today went because we never really got a feeling for the car and struggled for confidence. We made some improvements this afternoon and made some good progress, but there is still a long way to go. We just need to go home, do some homework, and figure out what the answers are.”
Elfyn Evans (DNF) said:
“Performance wise, I think we can take a lot from this rally. Especially on Saturday, we might not have been able to match Robert [Kubica], but when compared to some of the world rally cars I think we had good pace.
“Unfortunately, I made a silly mistake on yesterday’s Super Special and that affected our retirement today when the [Ford] Fiesta R5 developed an issue with the clutch. Obviously it is very disappointing for the whole team, but we just need to keep focussed and look forward to GB.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“Sadly we have not achieved the result we were hoping for this weekend, but to come away with Thierry [Neuville] still holding a strong second place in the Drivers’ Championship is not bad at all. He has 14 points over Jari-Matti [Latvala], so I think we can all look forward to a good battle between them in GB.
“It is very satisfying indeed to see so many of our Ford Fiestas in the top-ten. That in itself is a fantastic result and testament to all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes back at base.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team