2013031864Despite the unpredictable weather conditions and the difficulty involved in making the right tyre choice, the opening exchanges of the Rallye de France saw impressive performances from Dani Sordo/Carlos del Barrio and Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena. The two Citroën Racing crews took it in turns to top the overall standings. At the end of today’s second leg, the Spaniard and the Frenchmen lie second and fourth overall respectively. After struggling on the stages today, Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen are in eight place.
On Friday, the race took on another dimension as the crews headed deep into the countryside of the Alsace region and into the Vosges. With unpredictable weather expected, tyre choice for the morning’s stages looked complicated. In the Citroën camp, the three DS3 WRCs left the service park fitted with hard compound Michelin Pilot Sport tyres.
Proving that he had lost none of his legendary speed despite being away from rallying for the last few months, Sébastien Loeb gave his rivals plenty to worry about by winning all three of the morning’s stages. He took the overall lead at the end of the Pays d’Ormont test, the stage which has often proved decisive in determining the outcome of the Rallye de France: “I was pleased to see that my feeling was back within the first few kilometres. The third stage was tricky because it had just rained before our run. I had to stay focussed, but everything went well as we were the quickest.”
Seb therefore wrestled the lead from Dani Sordo, who fell back from first to fourth place: “We’ve had every road condition thrown at us this morning. The main thing is to be fighting for first place. I’ll have to keep pushing to stay among the front-runners!”
Mikko Hirvonen had a much less enjoyable morning. The Finn was languishing down in seventh place, around fifty seconds adrift of this nine-time World Championship-winning team-mate: “On SS2, the intercom headset we use on the road sections came loose and ended up in the footwell between the pedals. Before the next stage, I wanted to change the set-up of the suspension, but I made a beginner’s mistake in turning the wrench the wrong way! Anyway, I ended up spinning on Pays d’Ormont…”
Before heading out for a second run on the same three stages, the drivers were once again faced with a real dilemma when it came to tyre choice. The forecast provided by Météo France indicated conditions would be dry, but the Citroën Racing team opted for a choice that turned out to be too cautious: Loeb and Hirvonen set off with four soft tyres and two hard tyres, whilst Sordo took three of each type.
Having opted for more suitable tyres, Thierry Neuville gradually made up ground on Sébastien Loeb, who lost 16.9s over the loop’s three stages. “Quite simply, we made the wrong call,” he admitted. “Obviously, it’s not enjoyable to fall back from first to fourth place, but the gaps are still sufficiently small for us to remain positive. Before the start of the rally, the question was would I be able to fight for the win. Well, we’re very much in the hunt, and that’s the main thing!”
Thanks to having opted for a midway solution, Dani Sordo fared slightly better. The Spaniard moved back up into second position, 9.9s behind Neuville: “The balance of the car wasn’t perfect but that’s to be expected given the tyre set-up we opted for. I’m pleased with my position – there is still a long way to go in the rally and I’m certain there will be plenty more surprises in store as regards the weather.”
Meanwhile, Mikko Hirvonen ended the leg in eighth place, a result that he was clearly not happy with: “Apart from our tyre choice not being the right one, I still don’t understand why I was so far off the pace of the leading guys. Even though I lacked a bit of confidence in the damp sections, my pace was nonetheless better than this morning.”
Competing in his DS3 RRC, Robert Kubica leads the WRC2 standings by over three minutes from Elfyn Evans. The Pole is therefore well on course to achieve an excellent result for the championship.