With the 79th victory of their amazing career after an incident-packed race, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena guided Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT back to winning ways, proving once again the value of a committed team that refused to give up.
The only previous occasion that Sébastien Loeb had successfully attempted a backflip on the final podium of a rally was back at the 2004 Tour de Corse to celebrate his first world title. The former gymnast repeated the feat yesterday, confirming the historic significance of this victory, claimed in the final guest appearance of his part-time return in 2018, six years after he contested his last full season in the WRC. Although he had won in Spain eight times running (between 2005 and 2012) before entering this year's rally, he hadn't competed at the event since 2012. However, his three stage wins in Mexico – where he also briefly held the overall lead – and another three fastest times in Corsica, suggested that he would be more or less on the pace. Perfectly assisted by his faithful co-driver Daniel Elena, the nine-time world champion did better than more or less: once again showcasing his incredible ability to adapt to conditions, he gradually worked with the team to fine-tune the set-up of his C3 WRC, ending the opening leg on gravel in fourth place, just 0.5s behind the third-placed driver and 3.4s adrift of second position. In the process, he set an impressive third fastest time (+2.0s) and then a second-fastest time (+2.9s) on the decisive La Fatarella – Vilalba stage (38.85km). Meanwhile, Craig Breen, who had briefly held a solid fifth place just seven tenths behind his world champion team-mate, ended the opening leg in eighth overall following a spin. The hardest part was still to come for Loeb, however, on Saturday's leg as the French ace had to get his bearings again on tarmac. Moreover, the roads were wet, providing him with the additional challenge of racing in conditions that he had not experienced for five years in a rally. Yet again, he blew everyone away: after re-familiarising himself with the conditions on the morning loop, a stage win on SS12 (21.26km), as the battle raged around him for the drivers' title, promoted him to third place, just 3.3s behind the second-placed driver and 8.0s off the leader. Craig Breen, on the other hand, unfortunately fell back to ninth place after another two spins. With the final leg therefore set to be decisive for the final podium places, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT landed a telling blow at the start of the day! The team perfectly anticipated that the Catalan roads would dry out, with Sébastien Loeb the only driver to gamble on fitting four hard slicks for the opening loop. Two stage wins later, he made it to the mid-leg service in the overall lead, 7.1s ahead of the second-placed driver! Despite a minor scare (a stall at the roundabout on SS17), the French ace held on to the end of the rally to secure the 79th victory of his WRC career by 2.9s, five years after his last overall win (Argentina in 2013). This incredible performance provided the Red Army with their first win of the season and the 99th victory of their long history in the world championship. Meanwhile, Craig Breen finished in ninth place whilst Khalid Al Qassimi concluded his final appearance of the year in twenty-first place, after gradually upping his pace on gravel and having continued to learn on tarmac.
After Craig Breen spent long periods fighting for a podium spot, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT come away from Wales with the satisfaction of having seen the C3 WRC prove it is competitive once again, on a surface where you need to adapt to the constantly changing levels of grip.
Wales Rally GB is fairly unusual for a gravel event: for once, due to the saturated state of the ground, it is invariably preferable to start high up the running order before the roads turn into a mudbath. Running tenth and eleventh on the road respectively throughout Friday, i.e. the last of the WRCs, Mads Østberg and Craig Breen were therefore by no means at an advantage. However, armed with confidence from the traction and handling of his C3 WRC, Breen managed nonetheless to pull off the impressive feat of staying in touch with the leaders, ending the day within 13s of the fourth-placed driver. Østberg, who struggled slightly more with the conditions, finished day one eighth overall. Craig Breen confirmed his very good form on Saturday by closing to within two seconds of the podium by the end of the leg, after having set a couple of second fastest times in the afternoon (SS15 and SS18). Mads Østberg completed a strong team performance as he also fought back strongly to end the day in fifth place, claiming a stage win and setting an impressive series of three consecutive second fastest times (SS12, SS13 and SS14) in the process. The Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT drivers were clearly determined to get – and stay – among the frontrunners right to the end! They therefore went on the attack early on Sunday morning, with the roads still incredibly slippery. Unfortunately, a minor mistake meant Breen dropped out of contention for a podium finish, but he held on to secure a strong fourth place. Mads Østberg, who also had a spin in his C3 WRC, had to settle for eighth overall.
This was a weekend of firsts: the first Rally Turkey to be held at the new Marmaris hub in the championship and the first time that Craig Breen had led a WRC round. The Irishman was the quickest out of the blocks on Friday on the opening stage's thirty-eight kilometres plus. His calm and measured approach ensured he then made it to the end of the morning loop in second place, just 6.3s behind the leader, closely followed by Mads Østberg in third, 8.2s off the pace and who had also made a fine start. The Norwegian had in particular set the second fastest time on SS3, just 2.1s behind the championship leader over almost twenty-two kilometres. However, despite taking great care to avoid the most substantial obstacles, both crews then suffered the misfortune of picking up punctures during the afternoon loop. Whilst Breen fell back to eighth position after two punctures, Østberg, still running fifth at the time, retired for the day when the rough conditions ended up breaking a suspension arm and a turbo failure meant Khalid Al Qassimi also had to call it a day. However, the roads proved to be even harder on Saturday's leg for the new generation WRCs, the endurance of which had never been tested to this extent since their introduction last year. Unfortunately, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT did not escape unscathed. It has to be said that the roads broke up very quickly, unable to withstand the power of the WRCs, with sharp stones and other embedded rocks appearing on the surface. Mads Østberg had to stop with a turbo issue whilst Craig Breen, who had climbed back up to sixth overall despite his unfavourable road position (2nd), had to retire from the rally after his car burst into flames and burned out. The rally ended on a more positive note on Sunday, however, with three consecutive second fastest times for Mads Østberg, whilst Khalid Al Qassimi secured a few manufacturers' championship points.
Having finished as runner-up in 2017 in Germany, the Citroën C3 WRC produced a high level of performance again this year, without however managing to turn its pace into a good result. It has to be said that Craig Breen, already hampered on Friday by his position down the running order (10th) with more mud and gravel dragged onto the line as the cars ahead completed the stages, was then one of the few WRC drivers to suffer a sudden heavy shower on SS3, costing him a good fifteen or so seconds. His misfortune left him eighth at the end of day one. Meanwhile, Mads Østberg ended the opening leg in eleventh place as he got to grips with the C3 WRC on tarmac, a surface on which he is less comfortable. He also had a spin on SS3 and a minor engine issue in the afternoon. Despite his difficulties, Craig Breen refused to lay down arms. He staged a fine comeback on Saturday, the most difficult leg of the weekend, with two runs on the Baumholder military base stage and its particularly bumpy concrete roads. His charge included a fine stage win (SS11) and several impressive times. He had in fact moved back up to sixth position and was putting the fifth-placed driver under pressure when unfortunately he made a mistake on the day's final stage. He therefore dropped down to tenth overall, just behind the improving Mads Østberg. The Norwegian's progress could be seen in his third place, tied with the future rally winner, on SS11. However, Sunday's leg proved fatal for the Citroën driver as he went off on the day's opening test. Meanwhile, Craig quickly regained the good feeling he had enjoyed in the car on Saturday to finish seventh. He produced a fine performance on the Power Stage, grabbing fourth place, just 4.2s behind the five-time world champion, as the battle raged between the driver's world title contenders for the bonus points available.
Having already claimed four overall wins (2008, 2011, 2012 and 2016) here on the ultra-fast Finnish stages, where you need a precise car in which the drivers feel especially confident, Citroën have shown their value many times at this very unusual event. And this year's rally proved to be no exception to the rule! Starting at the shakedown, where Mads Østberg – convinced he had the best car that he had ever driven on these stages (in thirteen appearances!) – topped the timesheets, followed closely by Craig Breen. It was therefore clear from the outset that the Citroen pair was going to be a force to be reckoned with this weekend. The Norwegian immediately grabbed second place when the real action began on SS2, before then taking the lead on SS4 thanks to his first stage win. With another two stage wins in the afternoon, he held the lead for four stages, before ending the opening leg in second place, just 5.8s behind Tänak, the future winner. In the meantime, Craig Breen had unfortunately picked up a puncture (SS2), which cost him 47.8s and with it, any chance of featuring among the leaders. He was unable to make up the time lost and therefore found himself high up the running order (third on the road for the next two days) on a surface where the grip improves as more cars complete the stages. However, as soon as the conditions were kinder to him, the Irishman grabbed the slightest opportunity to show his pace, as seen in the stage win on SS8 and the time set on the Power Stage (+1.7s over 11.12km), ultimately ending the rally in eighth position. On his second WRC outing of the year after Argentina, Khalid Al Qassimi's progress was brought to a halt on Saturday morning following a mistake on SS12. He rejoined under Rally 2 rules on Sunday and went on to finish the race. Meanwhile, Mads Østberg picked up on Saturday where he had left off on Friday, holding off the constant attacks of Jari-Matti Latvala, a former three-time winner of the event. He took a 5.4s lead into Sunday's final leg, despite being undoubtedly hampered by carrying an extra spare tyre in the afternoon loop. When the action resumed on Sunday morning, the 30 year-old Norwegian made his intentions crystal clear to his rivals with another stage win, his fourth of the weekend! He held off Latvala magnificently right to the end to finish as runner-up, his best result at this iconic rally after two third-place finishes (2013 and 2015).
Having a good opening leg is invariably critical on gravel. Anything less, with the standings reversed to define the running order for the next two days, and you end up spending the rest of the rally sweeping the roads clear of dust and loose gravel for your rivals. With heavy showers making an unexpected appearance in Sardinia on Friday, where usually very little rain is seen at this time of year, things were suddenly more complicated for Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT. In wet conditions, it's never an advantage to start quite far down the running order on gravel (8th for Craig Breen and 10th for Mads Østberg), as the roads become increasingly greasy and muddy as more cars come through the stages. However, the team refused to be beaten, as particularly demonstrated by the two second fastest times set by Mads (SS2 and SS9) amidst the almighty scrap at the front, evidence that the Norwegian is improving in his handling of the C3 WRC. A series of minor incidents for Mads (an impact with a rock on SS4) and Craig (an overshoot on SS2, three stalls on SS6 and an overshoot on SS7), combined with an ill-judged choice of tyres for both runs on Tergu – Osilo, prevented the pair from ending Friday's leg any higher than fifth and seventh overall. Fine weather returned on Saturday and began to dry out the ground, meaning both crews spent the final two legs acting as road sweepers for the rest of the field. They therefore concentrated on holding onto their positions, playing it safe by taking two spares on Saturday afternoon, for example, where the stages are known for being hard on the tyres. Despite road position being against him, Mads Østberg made a stubborn attempt to put the fourth-placed driver under pressure, before eventually accepting that he could not catch him. The Norwegian ended up finishing fifth overall, his best result with the C3 WRC, after two sixth-place finishes in Sweden and Portugal. Meanwhile, Craig Breen rounded off a respectable overall result by claiming sixth place, having also improved his understanding of an event where he previously had considerably less experience than his rivals.
After spending so many years surveying the stages of the World Rally Championship, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT's engineers are familiar with the specific features of each stage. Therefore, they had quickly identified that Friday’s leg would be the most decisive stage of the weekend. The engineers turned out to be right and although, unlike many competitors, all three Citroën C3 WRCs made it safely to the end of the leg, the team's weekend was immediately and irreversibly compromised by three costly punctures. However, it had all started so well, with Kris Meeke brimming with confidence and moving into third position, just 2.2 seconds behind the leader, on the first proper stage. He even grabbed the lead on the next speed test as he claimed the stage win, before briefly relinquishing it. He then reclaimed first position at the start of the afternoon as he picked up another stage win (SS5). It looked like the Northern Irishman was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the fight for the overall win. Craig Breen was determined not to be left out of the party, however, collecting his own stage win (SS6), just as Kris picked up a puncture. The misfortune would have gone almost unnoticed had Kris not been hit by a second puncture on SS7, whilst Craig, third overall at the time just 4.4 seconds off the pace, also saw one of his tyres suddenly lose pressure after hitting one of the many embedded rocks loosened by cars running through the stages. Meeke was forced to complete the long road section and the evening's two super special stages effectively with just three tyres, whilst Breen had to stop to change the flat tyre mid-stage. Both drivers therefore lost precious time and found themselves down in seventh and eighth position at the end of day one, 1 minute and 18.7 seconds, and 2 minutes and 27.3 seconds back respectively. Meanwhile, Mads Østberg made an encouraging debut on gravel in the C3 WRC, finishing the first leg in sixth place. However, faced with the unenviable task of running first on the road for the next two days – and therefore sweeping the loose gravel and sand off the road surface – Mads Østberg and Craig Breen were unable to finish any higher than sixth and seventh overall, whilst Kris Meeke unfortunately went off the road on Saturday, spelling the end of his weekend.
A podium (3rd) on his first WRC appearance in 2014 followed by his first world championship win a year later: there can be no doubt that Kris Meeke enjoys competing at Rally Argentina. Full of confidence in the C3 WRC, on which a new rear axle was introduced for this round, the Northern Irishman wasted no time in demonstrating his love of this event when he made it to midday service on the opening day in third place, particularly thanks to two consecutive second fastest times. He upped his level again in the afternoon, moving into second position, 22.7s behind the leader at the end of day one. Meanwhile, Craig Breen ended the day in sixth overall, just 4.8s behind the fifth-placed driver, on his return to the WRC. His strong performances (two second fastest times) were somewhat obscured by a ten-second penalty for arriving late at a time control. Unfortunately, Craig ran into trouble the following day, spelling the end of his rally, whilst his split times showed he was keeping pace with the future rally winner on the first run on Cuchilla Nevada – Rio Pintos, the weekend's longest stage... Up to that point, Craig had produced a strong performance, especially for someone whose only previous appearance here was cut very short in 2017. Aware of how important securing a podium was for the team, Kris Meeke opted against all-out attack to hold off the comeback of Neuville. He had a tight hold on third place, with a 16.2s lead over the fourth-placed driver, when he suffered a puncture on the second pass on the same stage. After losing almost 2m 30s, the C3 WRC adorned with the Union Jack – which had been unerringly consistent and fast up to that point – saw its hopes of what would have been the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT's third podium of the season evaporate. However, the team once again showed its strength of character on Sunday, fully committed to the cause despite the obvious frustration, focusing already on set-up testing for the next event. Meanwhile, Khalid Al Qassimi, fourteenth on his first competitive outing this year in the C3 WRC, following a long period out of action – at least in conventional rallying – made his contribution in the hunt for manufacturers' championship points.
A true tarmac specialist, Sébastien Loeb had already produced exceptional performances in Corsica, like in 2005 when he topped the timesheets on every stage throughout the weekend. Ten years after his last appearance here, he produced another incredible feat on Friday morning when he finished just 9.7s behind the leader on the formidable opening stage of La Porta – Valle di Rostino (49.03km). Whilst his rivals could use their experience of the stage, having faced its seemingly never-ending series of bends since 2016, the nine-time world champions had to rely solely on pace notes. Their ninth position in the running order was no help to their cause, with more gravel and mud being pulled onto the road as cars ahead completed the stage. Unfortunately, "more fired up than my own tyres", the nine-time world rally champion was caught cold at the start of the next stage. Kris Meeke then took up the baton to perform superbly on behalf of Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT. The Northern Irishman made it to the end of day one in third overall, just 5.1s behind the second-placed driver, picking up a second fastest and a third fastest time in the process. Whilst Sébastien Loeb produced a masterful display the next day on his return to action under Rally 2 rules, his three stage wins demonstrating the performance level of the C3 WRC on this surface, Kris Meeke also confirmed his good form by moving into a tie for second place. Unfortunately, a pace note error ended up in the Ulsterman going off the road on Saturday's final stage. After securing the second fastest time on Sunday on his return under Rally 2 rules, before finishing third on the Power Stage, Kris Meeke nonetheless demonstrated the array of qualities of his car right to the end. The same was true of Sébastien Loeb, who came second on the final speed test – hotly contested as ever – just 2.2s off the stage-winning time.
Having claimed six wins in Mexico (2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012), sometimes even starting first on the road, Sébastien Loeb had already produced some miraculous performances on these lofty, scorching gravel roads. But it was unthinkable that he could repeat the feat on his return to the WRC as part of a three-event programme (Mexico, Corsica and Catalonia), six years after his last full season in the category, especially given the increasingly tough competition. And yet that is exactly what he did in a C3 WRC that seemed to fit him like a glove! Alongside Daniel Elena, they made the most of their eleventh position in the running order on day one to move into second place, whilst topping the timesheets on two tests, their first stage wins since the 2015 Rallye Monte-Carlo. They then confirmed their good form on the Saturday with another stage win on the opening speed test, taking them into the overall lead, whereas this time the running orders were broadly equivalent among the leaders. Observers, who were already impressed by the French ace, were left stunned by his performance! The 44 year-old Frenchman and his Monegasque co-driver led the race for three stages, before picking up a puncture (SS14) and making the ill-advised call to change the affected wheel, due to a lack of knowledge of the tyres currently used in the WRC. The pair dropped to fifth overall, which is where they would finish the race, but continued to thrill the many fans lining the roads from that point until the end, whilst also securing precious points for the team. It has to be said they were very ably replaced on the podium by Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle, winners of last year's rally. Having equally collected two stage wins on day one despite being hampered by a less-than-ideal tyre choice on the morning loop, the pair ended the opening leg fourth overall, eager to seize any opportunities and determined to move up the standings. Mission accomplished on Saturday's leg: with three further stage wins, they moved up into second place, 10.9s ahead of the third-placed driver. Unfortunately, a minor off on Sunday morning meant they had to settle for third place. It was nonetheless their first podium of the season, and the second consecutive top-three finish for Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT.
There can't be many Irishmen who can say their rallying careers began on a frozen lake in Scandinavia, but for Craig Breen, this is precisely where it all started. His parents got him ice driving lessons as a Christmas present, providing the then fifteen year-old with his first proper experience in a rally car. The 28 year-old then made his debut in a WRC in 2014 at Rally Sweden, before making his maiden outing for Citroën Racing in the 2016 running of the Nordic classic. All of this explains, perhaps, why Craig loves this ultimate winter rally with such passion, where his best result prior to this year was fifth place (2017) in five appearances on the Swedish ice and snow. Taking full advantage of his good road position (ninth), he demonstrated his acrobatic skills on the first full day of racing, claiming two stage wins and finishing the leg fourth overall, just five tenths shy of the podium. Feeling very confident in his C3 WRC on these fast stages, Craig then upped his pace again the next day to move into second place, just 4.2s adrift of the leader, thanks in large part to a third stage win. However, the guys behind were in no mood to ease off and he needed broad shoulders to keep them at bay. Craig Breen and Scott Martin managed to hold their nerve on Sunday's leg to seal second place and with it, secure their best result in the WRC and a fourth podium of the C3 WRC's short career. Mads Østberg – the last Citroën driver to claim a podium in Sweden (2014) – also had his sights set on a top-three finish in the early stages of the rally as he ended Friday's leg just 1.1s behind third place, showing that he was getting to grips quickly with the C3 WRC on his return with the Red Army. Still learning about his new machine, he then managed his pace to secure sixth place, scoring important points for the team in the manufacturers' championship. Kris Meeke's target for the weekend was equally to add a few points to his drivers' championship tally. After having acted as a snowplough on day one (fourth in the running order) thanks to his performance in Monte, he found himself way off the fight at the front. However, the Ulsterman was out of luck again. A seemingly innocuous impact with snow bank ended up damaging his C3 WRC's turbo, forcing him to retire, a stiff penalty for such a minor mistake.
The strength of all great teams is the ability to stick together and grind out results, even when the going is tough. With the seventeen points scored by Kris Meeke in the drivers' championship, the eighteen points added to the team's tally in the manufacturers' championship and the Power Stage win, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT proved its strength of character this weekend in Monaco, after a frustrating start to the race. Unfortunately, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle ran into trouble on Thursday evening's opening leg – held after nightfall – on the daunting Thoard-Sisteron stage (36.69km), where the snow covering a threekilometre section near the top of the Col de Fontbelle caught out many of the crews. After dropping just under two minutes on this first stage, their rally was already set to head in a different direction to that planned. Worse was to come for the team, as Craig Breen and Scott Martin were also hit by poor luck on Friday morning. A stone lodged itself in one of their C3 WRC's wheel rims and damaged the brake calliper's bleed nipple. This meant that they gradually lost the brakes on the next three stages of the loop and despite their attempts to perform repairs, they fell back from seventh to tenth place with the rapid loss of three minutes. This stroke of bad luck was all the more harsh on them because it left them forced to open the road on Saturday, literally tracing a line in the snow for the crews behind to follow. In conditions like these, it’s difficult not to lose momentum. Especially as this edition of the Rallye Monte-Carlo turned out to be one of the toughest in recent years, with a wide variety of grip conditions on the roads used in all four legs. But Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT remain focused on the job in hand and on its targets. The Red Army was never wrong-footed when it came to tyre choice. Similarly, the set-up of Kris Meeke's C3 WRC was gradually fine-tuned, allowing him to grow in confidence and move back up into fifth overall, whilst Craig Breen took advantage of any opportunities to remind everyone of his talent and pace. For example, he set a third fastest time, just 2.2s off the leading pace, on Saturday's final stage, and another on the second pass over the iconic Col de Turini. The team eventually saw its persistence and determination rewarded when Kris Meeke's claimed victory on the final stage and moved up to fourth overall, successfully holding off repeated attacks from those behind him.