As the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) embarks on the first true asphalt round of the season, Qatar M-Sport will be looking to maintain its good form as it takes up the Tarmac challenge. Swapping gravel jumps for tight blacktop junctions, the squad is keen to continue its recent success by challenging for a win at next week’s ADAC Rallye Deutschland.
As one of the most difficult sealed-surface events of the year, success in Germany is no mean feat. Widely acknowledged as three rallies in one, crews must master a blend of speed, adaptability, concentration and compromise in pursuit of victory.
The sixteen special stages start with a winding traverse through the Mosel vineyards. Littered with junctions, these meandering tests make precise cornering and pacenotes essential. As the stages open onto Saarland’s wide country roads, the Ford Fiesta RS WRCs are let loose. Hitting the rev-limiter at top-speeds, crews are free to showcase their outright pace.
However the most daunting challenge is reserved for a perilous dash through the Baumholder military ground. Run twice on the penultimate day, ‘Arena Panzerplatte’ never fails to excite – the ‘Hinkelstein’ concrete blocks claiming their victims year after year. But thanks to an extensive week-long test, a drama-filled run is something the Qatar M-Sport crews have been trained to avoid.
Fellow Qatar M-Sport driver Evgeny Novikov will be aiming to translate his clear speed into a strong result next week. This will be the Russian’s second outing in Germany, but he will be hoping that the switch to asphalt helps harness his speed. Partnered by co-driver Ilka Minor, Novikov thrives in difficult conditions; and with few events matching Germany in terms of complexity, the Muscovite should not be discounted for a strong result.
Making a welcome return to the team, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Giovanni Bernacchini will be back behind the wheel of the Qatar World Rally Team Fiesta RS WRC. Despite only contesting the event on two previous occasions, the Qatari knows how to get the best out of the Fiesta through the specialist stages. Piloting a Ford Fiesta S2000, he secured second place as part of the S-WRC in 2011. Looking to continue his unbroken record of top-five finishes so far this season, Al-Attiyah will be seeking his best ever result on asphalt. Following a superb start to the season, Al-Attiyah’s Qatar World Rally Team team-mate will be the one to watch. With three back-to-back personal bests and four podiums to his name, Thierry Neuville is full of confidence as the championship turns to his preferred surface.
Thanks to a sensational second-placed finish in Finland and an impressive performance behind the wheel of the Ford Fiesta R5 at the Geko Ypres Rally, Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul are perfectly placed to challenge for the top results. Running as high as fourth overall on the event last year, the Belgians will be keen to go at least one better as they return to what is effectively their home rally for only the second time in a top-specification car.
Elsewhere, in the WRC 2 category, Elfyn Evans and Daniel Barritt return to the wheel of the Fiesta R5 as the model makes its WRC asphalt debut. With his first two events marred by misfortune, the Welshman will be keen for a change of luck on the German stages. This will be Evans’ second venture to the event, but the youngster knows how to tame the difficult stages having secured victory as part of the FIA WRC Academy last year.
Mads Østberg said:
“I think we’ve really improved our performance on asphalt. We made a good step last year and I hope we can continue that development. We’ve changed our driving style slightly and I think that will really help us on Tarmac.
“Of course Germany is a very tricky event. It’s important to be able to change rhythm quickly. Although the stages are quite similar in some ways with lots of junctions and changes of direction, the character of the Tarmac is constantly changing – from vineyards to concrete and forests to open roads – and you need to be able to adapt to this.
“You can’t read the road in Germany as you can at other events so pacenotes are also really important. They need to be spot-on for every stage and you need to really concentrate and listen to your co-driver.
“Our confidence is high after Finland and we know that we have the pace and the car to challenge for the top results. We had a really good test at the beginning of the week and we’ll be testing more today [Friday] and tomorrow [Saturday]. I’m really pleased with the set-up we found so I am really looking forward to getting back to asphalt.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“I’ve only competed in Germany once before so I don’t know the stages as well as some of the other competitors. That said, it is an event I really enjoy. It’s a really difficult rally to get right, but I love the challenge.
“I think the most difficult aspect will be the cuts that form throughout the weekend. A lot of junctions mean the rally doesn’t ‘flow’ as much as other asphalt events and I think we can all expect it to be very dirty and slippery on the second pass.
“There are a lot of things to take into consideration on this event and you need to run quite a clever rally. You need to think about tyres because we don’t get an unlimited supply and a wrong choice can lose you a lot of time. Then the weather will also play a big factor.
“But we have had a good couple of days testing and both Ilka [Minor, co-driver] and I feel well prepared for the challenges ahead.”
Nasser Al-Attiyah said:
“I was really pleased with the result in Finland. The entire team performed perfectly and I am now really looking forward to getting back behind the wheel myself. This is a really good rally with a fantastic atmosphere, but it is also a challenging one.
“The surface can differ a lot from stage to stage so you need to ensure you are confident with the car and able to adapt quickly to the changes. There is always a lot to think about on an event like this – tyres, pacenotes, weather – so the crews need to keep focus all weekend.
“As always we will drive for a good result. With the team’s expertise, I hope it will be another successful event for both Giovanni [Bernacchini, co-driver] and I, and Qatar M-Sport as a whole.”
Thierry Neuville said:
“I have more experience on asphalt and it is the surface I feel most confident on so I definitely want to finish on the podium. Of course we will have to wait and see what our speed is like on the stages, but it might even be possible to fight for the win.
“This event can be won and lost in the vineyards. You need to be clean and smooth with your driving and have a really good set-up in order to be confident through the junctions. The stages are really narrow which makes it very difficult in a world rally car. You cannot afford to let the car slide because you end up losing too much time.
“Finding a good set-up for all types of stages is very important, but we’ve had a good test so far and the car feels really good. There are still a few things to discover, but we have more testing over the weekend to work on that. We’ve had some really good test roads and were able to try a lot of different settings. Both Nicolas [Gilsoul, co-driver] and I are really looking forward to this event – it’s practically a home rally for us!”
Elfyn Evans said:
“This is going to be another difficult event, but one that I am really looking forward to. There are three very different days in terms of stages, so the key is being able to adapt quickly. You also need to be very clean and tidy and drive within your limits. Although the stages vary quite dramatically, they are all extremely unforgiving with little room for error.
“This will be the first time we’ll see the [Ford Fiesta] R5 on asphalt in the WRC, but I think it has all the ingredients to be just as competitive as it was on gravel. Again, it’s another competitive field, but I really enjoy Tarmac rallies. We’ll just have to see where we are after the first couple of stages and try our best as always.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team