Leading the way, Thierry Neuville holds the top step of the podium with Mads Østberg just seconds behind in third.
The Qatar M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRCs got off to a flying start on the first day of Neste Oil Rally Finland.
Not content with two podium positions at the highest level, M-Sport are also dominating the WRC 2 category with the Autotek-run Ford Fiesta R5 of Jari Ketomaa heading the field and Qatar M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans holding third in a similar M-Sport run Fiesta R5.
Despite the first day incorporating just 45 competitive kilometres, the six short stages were no easy challenge. More than any other event, Finland demands a competitive start and the Qatar M-Sport crews did not disappoint.
Qatar World Rally Team’s Neuville was particularly impressive. As history dictates, Finland favours a mix of experience and Scandinavian flair; but there was no convincing the young Belgian of that. Having only tackled the event on one previous occasion, Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul powered through to lead the rally from the second stage.
Østberg too remains tantalisingly close to the top-spot with just 8.9 seconds separating the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team driver from the lead. Although feeling that he lacked a perfect rhythm in some sections, Østberg’s pure speed meant he was rarely outside the top-five on individual stage times.
Partnered by Sweden’s Jonas Andersson, the pairing have clearly regained their confidence after a challenging first half of the season. Sitting in third place – and with more familiar stages to come – Østberg will be one to watch and keen to add another podium to his 2013 tally.
In the sister Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta, Evgeny Novikov had a solid run through the opening tests. Settling into a good rhythm, he and co-driver Ilka Minor maintained a top-five position – less than 10 seconds adrift of the lead – for much of the afternoon. But the Russian lost time on the second pass of Torittu (SS4). Feeling powerless under braking, a combination of slippery conditions and huge ruts forced him off the road. Yet he did a good job of limiting the time loss – recovering seventh place with all to play for just 20 seconds shy of the lead.
In WRC 2, the Ford Fiesta R5 was the break-through story of the day – Qatar M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans playing a starring role in the success story. Indeed the Welshman lays a strong third with local driver Jari Ketomaa – in a similar M-Sport built Fiesta R5 – at the head of the field.
Having been absent from the category since Rally de Portugal, Evans is back in style. Rarely out of the top-three, the Welshman is a real contender behind the wheel of his new machinery and hungry for a top result.
Thierry Neuville (1st) said:
“I never thought I would have such a good first day here, but the car has been really quick and the set-up was perfect which gave me a lot of confidence. We had a good rhythm all day and I really enjoyed the driving.
“We didn’t push too much – just followed the splits of Sebastien [Ogier] and Mikko [Hirvonen]. We were still trying to be clever and when it was tricky we backed off the pace. Obviously this strategy has worked well for us as we’re leading the rally and set two fastest times!
“I guess we will struggle a little tomorrow because we won’t have the best road position. But that’s not to say I’m giving up. Not at all! We’ll work on a good set-up in the morning, hope for sun, and try to be as fast as we possibly can.”
Mads Østberg (3rd) said:
“Today hasn’t been bad at all. The car felt good and although sometimes I struggled to find the rhythm, generally the feeling was a positive one. To be third, less than 10 seconds off the lead, is not a bad thing for tomorrow.
“We went off the road on SS4. Nothing happened to the car and we didn’t hit anything, we just had the same issue that a lot of drivers had with the ruts. When that happens you have no control so we used the escape road. I lost a lot of time on the last stage too [SS6]. The conditions were really bad – I just had no confidence and couldn’t push as much as I would have liked.
“Tomorrow is a much more ‘normal’ day with longer stages which I hope will be good for us. We were away from service for a long time today with some really long road sections. When you’re away that long you really start to miss your mechanics so it will be nice to spend some more time with them tomorrow!”
Evgeny Novikov (7th) said:
“The day was not so good for us as we had a couple of moments which lost us some time. On SS4 we got stuck in the ruts. There was nothing we could do under braking and the car just went straight so we lost a lot of time there. Then on SS5 we had a really bad rain storm for our run which made visibility almost impossible.
“Having said that we are just 20 seconds off the lead so I cannot be too disappointed. The car has been working well, and we still have a long way to go. Anything can happen tomorrow so we will keep pushing.”
Elfyn Evans (3rd in WRC 2) said:
“The [Ford Fiesta] R5 has shown fantastic promise today. There have been strong performances from a lot of drivers in the car so it’s good to see it going so well!
“For me, I don’t think we’ve had a bad day at all. There’s definitely more room for improvement, so we’ll keep working on that and see what tomorrow brings. There isn’t an awful lot to change on the car – a few little things here and there. But I think the car proved it’s worth today, so tomorrow we’ll try and show a little more from me.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“It has been a truly outstanding performance from Thierry [Neuville] today. To come here with his level of experience and be leading the rally at the end of the day is a fantastic achievement. He has exceeded his expectations and mine as a Team Principal – an exceptional performance.
“He came away from the [pre-event] test feeling very confident with the set-up of the car. His performance today is reward for all the hard work during testing – Thierry, Nicolas [Gilsoul, co-driver], and all M-Sport personnel did a fantastic job to get us where we are today.
“With Mads [Østberg] too it’s great to see two of our cars in a podium position. Mads and Thierry worked closely on the test, so that again is credit to the test team. Obviously it would have been nice to have kept the one-two, but Mads was sensible. It was very tricky on the last stage [SS6] so I think he made the right decision to take it steady and not risk anything major.
“Finally, it has been an incredible WRC debut for the [Ford Fiesta] R5. To have two cars on the [provisional WRC 2] podium is fantastic and Jari Ketomaa has dominated the field from the start.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team