Thierry Neuville is celebrating his maiden podium in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) today after he piloted his Ford Fiesta RS WRC to a sensational third place on the 2013 edition of Guanajuato Rally Mexico.
Similarly impressive, fellow Qatar World Rally Team driver Nasser Al-Attiyah secured his best ever performance from the event with fifth place overall.
A strong time demands peak physical fitness, some 90 pages of pacenotes and near perfect concentration. Needless to say, this season’s longest stage has claimed many victims over the years, but that was not to be the case for the Qatari-liveried Fiestas.
Finding the perfect balance between pace and control, Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul had little difficulty taming the challenging stages.
Leading the rally in its early phase, Belgium’s latest protégé showcased his growth as a world class driver – his mix of speed and composure resulting in a maiden WRC podium, a stage win, and ten top-three stage times.
However, seemingly emulating his friend and team-mate Al-Attiyah, Neuville had something of a Dakar moment through Guanajuatito (SS21). With a gap of just 7.5 seconds, the youngster was all set to push Mikko Hirvonen for second place and was taking time off the Finn on the opening splits.
But after braking late and going wide 15 km into the stage, Neuville took the mature approach and backed off the pace to consolidate what became a fantastic result on only his second venture to the Mexican event.
Rally Mexico also proved fruitful for fellow Qatar World Rally Team driver Al-Attiyah. Taking his best ever result from the event, the Qatari continually challenged the WRC regulars as his times overshadowed those posted on last year’s event.
Indeed, navigated by Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernnachini, Al-Attiyah blitzed his previous times by as much as half a minute.
Taking a cautious approach through Sunday’s final three stages, Al-Attiyah consolidated his fifth place – an excellent result on his debut with the team.
In the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team camp, it was all about minimising the impact of early misfortune. Having lost time when a rock pierced the underfloor of his Fiesta RS WRC on Friday’s opening test (SS3), Novikov was disadvantaged running third on the road.
But with the calming aid of co-driver Ilka Minor, the Muscovite made an impressive comeback – climbing from 22nd to tenth and securing a World Championship point in the process.
Elsewhere, Mads Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson came back strongly on today’s points-paying Power Stage. Having had to retire his Fiesta RS WRC with an electrical issue the previous day, the Norwegian refocused and set a sensational second fastest time – claiming a further two points for his championship campaign.
Considering his road position – sweeping the dusty gravel for the cars behind – the 24-year-old’s impressive pace heart-achingly demonstrated what could have so easily been a superb result.
Thierry Neuville (3rd): “It’s been a very good weekend for us – we had a lot of things to deal with and I think we coped with everything really well. On the first day we tried to push, then on the second day we hit something on the stage and developed a steering problem which we had to manage.
“We learnt a lot and we agreed with the team that we would push this morning because we thought, even if we get no podium here, we will definitely get one at another rally. So we certainly tried to push Mikko [Hirvonen] for second.
“All in all this is an absolutely fantastic result for us. I want to say a big thank you to the team because they did a really great job all weekend. Everything worked really well for us, and even when we damaged the car a bit, they repaired it perfectly.
“I hope this is not the last time you will see us here! We’re hungry for more podiums and one day I hope that it will be the top-step that we are standing on.”
Nasser Al-Attiyah (5th): “We didn’t take any risks today because we were very happy with fifth position. I am so happy with our result on this rally because it really is a very difficult event.
Last year we finished sixth and this year we finished fifth which just goes to show how hard the team are working to make everything happen.
“Thierry [Neuville] also had a very good result, and the Qatar World Rally Team is in a really good position on points now. I am very proud of Thierry and Nicolas [Gilsoul, Neuville’s co-driver] and I have no doubt that this is the first of many more podiums for them.”
Evgeny Novikov (10th): “We ran first on the road for most of the event, so we were not able to show the speed we were capable of. The problem on Friday was a real shame because I think we could have had some good pace here and really challenged for a good result.
“But this is a tough rally and these things can so easily happen. It’s just a shame that we were the unlucky ones this time. But we have gained a lot of good experience for next year and managed to salvage some points for the championship – every little helps!”
Mads Østberg (11th): “This rally has been very disappointing for us. Before the problem on Saturday we were setting a really good pace and on course for a top position. But that’s how it is and there’s nothing we can do about it now.
“It is for sure a shame, but as I said, we were setting a really good pace, as I think you can see from the Power Stage. Even being second on the road we managed to set the second fastest time and that is a real positive for us going forward.
“We know that the speed is there and now more than ever we are hungry for a good result so we will definitely be pushing for that in Portugal!”
Malcolm Wilson OBE: “What a fantastic result for Thierry [Neuville] and Nicolas [Gilsoul]! They controlled the rally perfectly and I am extremely proud that Qatar and M-Sport can be the ones to bring them the first of what I am sure will be many podiums in the WRC.
“Obviously Mads’ [Østberg] problem yesterday was a real blow for the team, but I was extremely impressed with his performance on the Power Stage.
To set a time like that with the road position he had was incredible and I know that he will be back as focused and as determined as ever in Portugal.”
Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari: “This is a fantastic result for us and I could not be happier. The victory may have looked easy from the outside, but I can tell you it wasn’t! When you have big gaps like that, it is so easy to lose concentration – especially on a stage like Guanajuatito [SS21] – so we had to work very hard all weekend.
I want to say a big thanks to the team at M-Sport, and I’m really looking forward to getting back behind the wheel. Of course there will be a lot of strong competition in Portugal, but we will try and have a clean run, like we did here, and see what happens.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team