Belgium's Thierry Neuville is the surprise leader of Rallye de France - Alsace after a complex opening day that rewarded accurate weather forecasting and shrewd tyre choices.
Neuville, who drives a Ford Fiesta RS, got the package just about right, and was fastest on three of Friday’s six asphalt stages to return to the Service Park in Strasbourg with a lead of 9.8sec over Citroen’s Dani Sordo. Volkswagen Polo R pilot Jari-Matti Latvala is third, just 1.9sec further back.
Neuville’s day started well, with an inspired tyre choice for the opening loop of three stages.
While the majority of the WRC runners chose Michelin’s hard compound tyres, Neuville gambled on a mixture of hards and softs. When rain made things damp on the day’s second test, he benefitted from the extra grip of the soft rubber.
His Qatar M-Sport squad got it right again in the afternoon. This time Neuville’s car was shod with hard compound tyres, while his rivals, who were expecting rain, biased their choices towards the soft. The rain held off, and Neuville was untouchable.
“I’m really happy with how the day has gone,” said Neuville, who was second at Rallye Deutschland, the championship’s most recent all-asphalt round. “We had the best information, our weather guy did a good job, and we made good tyre choices. I felt comfortable at the wheel so I was able to push quite hard.”
On his WRC swansong, Sebastien Loeb held the lead for much of the day. The Frenchman’s legendary sense of grip kept him out front throughout the morning, even though he faced more rain than most on SS3.
In the afternoon, however, Loeb gambled on soft tyres. And when the rain he hoped for never materialised, he lost ground to Neuville – almost ten seconds on the last stage alone.
“We counted on the rain and there was no rain,” Loeb shrugged. “We had the soft tyre and on the long stages it was very difficult. Neuville was fast. For sure we couldn’t match his speed. We’ll see what we can do tomorrow.” Loeb ended the day fourth, 12.2sec off the lead.
Power Stage winner Sordo snatched second from Loeb on Friday’s final test. Reinvigorated by his recent victory in Germany, the Spaniard has been in sparkling form and a top-three stage finisher on all but one of the tests so far.
Latvala is third, just 1.9sec adrift of Sordo. The Finn has had a trouble-free day, and felt his wet pre-event test had helped him in the rain on SS3. However that advantage was countered by a set-up mistake in the afternoon.
“I’m disappointed with my performance on the long stage,” he admitted. “I stayed soft with the car set-up and it was wrong. I should have gone stiffer. My mistake, I stayed with a soft car and that was not a good idea.”
The much-anticipated duel between Loeb and Sebastien Ogier was one of the casualties of the day. Newly crowned World Champion Ogier lies fifth in his Polo R, 16.5sec behind his team-mate. “This morning I found it difficult to wake up,” said Ogier. “This afternoon I tried to react and it was better, but I was still too slow. Unfortunately we didn’t have the right tyre choice...”
Evgeny Novikov is sixth, 34sec further back in his Ford Fiesta RS, with Volkswagen’s Andreas Mikkelsen seventh.
A frustrated Mikko Hirvonen is eighth, more than 1min 30 seconds off the lead after a day in his least favourite conditions. “When it’s slippery I’m not on the case,” he admitted after SS6.
Thing hadn’t improved by the end of SS7. “It’s not been a good day,” he acknowledged. “We made a few mistakes this morning, and then we made the wrong tyre choice. We expected rain, and on the soft tyres the car was moving a lot. It was very difficult.”
Ford Fiesta RS driver Mads Ostberg had a brake problem on SS7 and ended the day ninth, while Martin Prokop, also in a Fiesta rounds off the top 10.
Saturday's second leg gets underway at 0745hrs (local) with the opening stage, the 28 kilometre Hohlandsbourg – Firstplan, scheduled for 0923hrs.