The Qatar M-Sport squad were left to ask what could have been as Rallye de France-Alsace came to a close today. Having led the rally in its early phases, Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville finished the event in fourth place with the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Ford Fiesta RS WRCs of Evgeny Novikov and Mads Østberg in fifth and eighth places overall.
Losing almost a minute and a half to the chasing pack, the pairing were relegated to fifth place with all to do on today’s remaining 56.58 kilometre distance. Unfazed by yesterday’s disappointment, Neuville entered the treacherous, mud-strewn stages with one clear goal – to keep his Fiesta RS WRC firmly planted to the black-top stages and reap the rewards of any time loss ahead.
The 25-year-old’s strategy worked well. Despite taking a more cautious approach for the final day, Neuville was never out of the top-three on overall stage times. When nine-time World Champion, Sébastien Loeb, fell foul of the conditions, the Belgian recovered fourth place and valuable points for his championship campaign.
Having claimed two additional points on the opening Power Stage, Neuville lost just one point to Jari-Matti Latvala and retains his strong second place in the Championship – 18 points clear of the Finn – with two rounds remaining.
In the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, Novikov and co-driver Ilka Minor piloted their Fiesta RS WRC to another strong result. Driving well, the Russian increased his pace throughout the weekend – setting a string of competitive times. Indeed he and Minor have given themselves a healthy base on which to build when the championship returns to the mixed stages of Rally de España later this month.
Taking an intelligent approach to what is a rally on his least preferred surface, fellow Qatar M-Sport driver, Østberg, grew in both experience and confidence throughout the weekend. Comfortably upping their pace, he and co-driver Jonas Andersson were rewarded through the morning loop as they climbed from eighth, to sixth place overall.
Unfortunately, the 25-year-old had to settle for eighth place come the end of the event having become lodged on a junction through the tricky second pass of ‘Vignoble de Cleebourg’ (SS18). That said, the knowledge he has gained will hold the Norwegian in good stead as the championship continues in Spain.
Elsewhere, in WRC 2, Elfyn Evans and Daniel Barritt regrouped brilliantly following a puncture on the opening day. Having fallen down to fifth place in the category rankings, the Welshman set his Ford Fiesta R5 up perfectly for the challenging conditions.
Rarely out of the top-two on individual stage times, Evans looked more than comfortable on the rain-soaked stages. Second only to ex-Formula 1 ace Robert Kubica, the 25-year-old secured his second successive podium and will be looking to take further strides as the championship continues.
Thierry Neuville (4th) said: “Obviously I am disappointed having had the opportunity to take my first win this weekend, but I have to accept it. I think that we had a really good weekend and we have definitely shown that we have the speed and the car to win rallies.
“Ultimately it was my mistake – just 10 centimetres wide in one corner. Of course it’s a shame, but both ‘Sebs’ were here, and we were beating them, so I have to be happy with that.
“Again I need to thank the entire M-Sport team for everything they have done this weekend. This is our eleventh event in the team and we have not had a single problem with the car all season. We know that we have everything we need to secure a win this season, so now we just need to go out there and get it.”
Evgeny Novikov (5th) said: “Fifth place is quite good result for us, and I think the best we could have achieved this weekend. Generally it was a good event – our driving was good and I felt confident on the stages which I know quite well. I hope that we can continue to progress like this at the final two events.”
Mads Østberg (8th) said: “I was definitely more comfortable as the event went on and the speed was getting better and better which is a good thing. Of course this afternoon didn’t go the way we would have wanted it to, but sometimes things do not always go to plan.
“It is always frustrating when something like that happens – especially when everything was going in the right direction. But if you look at what we have done this weekend, I think it was a big improvement which I hope to continue building on in Spain.”
Elfyn Evans (2nd in WRC 2) said: “There are certainly a lot of positives that we can take from this weekend. We had a difficult start after having a bit of a break from the car since Germany and we struggled to get settled in. Then we had a puncture in the early stages that really hampered any hopes of battling with Robert [Kubica] for the lead of WRC 2.
“Saturday was a good day for us and we set some good times. But today we had some very difficult conditions and, considering the gap to Robert up front, we decided to just concentrate on getting the car home in one piece.
“All in all, there are positives to be taken, but not quite the result we wanted. We’re back in Spain and GB so hopefully we can go one better there.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said: “It’s obviously a big disappointment that Thierry [Neuville] and Nicolas [Gilsoul, co-driver] were not able to take their first victory here this weekend – especially after dominating the first half of the event to such an extent – but there is no question that their first win is not far away.
“The way he [Neuville] recovered after the disappointment and went on to continue to set fastest times is testament to both him and the [Ford] Fiesta [RS WRC]. We know that the car is competitive on both gravel and Tarmac, and the whole team is now looking forward to Spain where we can go and challenge for the victory once again.
“In WRC 2, we also saw another solid performance from Elfyn [Evans] and Daniel [Barritt, co-driver]. The puncture on the first day inevitably set them back, but I am looking forward to Spain where I am sure they can take they battle to Robert [Kubica] and Maciek [Baran, co-driver].”