AN UNBELIEVABLE RALLYE MONTE-CARLO!
First held in 1911, the Rallye Monte-Carlo has gained iconic status over the years. Dramatic, incident-packed, featuring superb performances and unpredictable throughout, the 2017 event will also live long in the memory. And yet, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT will be quickly turning its attention to the future after results that fell short of expectations.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
Proudly lined up in front of Monaco's Casino, the new World Rally Cars set off on Thursday evening for a short first leg to Gap. After the first stage was cancelled, the rally could begin in earnest. And it got off to pretty poor start for Stéphane Lefebvre. After carrying a bit too much speed into a corner, the Citroën C3 WRC driver opted for what he believed was the safe option, by running straight on. However, this minor mistake proved costly: stuck in the snow, the Frenchman burned out the car's clutch as he attempted to get going again.
From that point onwards, the hopes of the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi team rested solely with Kris Meeke. On Friday morning, the Northern Irishman went on the attack. On snow-covered roads, he grabbed second place at the end of SS3. But on the next stage, he was caught out by a sheet of ice. The rear of his C3 WRC hit a bank on the outside of the corner, breaking the suspension and forcing him to retire for the day.
If truth be told, this rally never looked like it was meant to be for Kris. After rejoining under Rally2 rules on Saturday, he lost another twenty minutes due an ignition problem on SS10. And in the evening, an ordinary road traffic accident ended his hopes of finishing the rally! On the road section to Monaco, Kris' car was hit by another vehicle, leaving him with no choice but to retire given the damage caused…
"Nothing really went as planned during this race," admitted Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. "And yet, we thought we could have a good weekend after some pleasing tests for the drivers and the team. In the early stages of the race, both Stéphane and Kris made mistakes and from that point onwards, we could no longer aim for a significant final result. We also had some difficulties in finding the right set-up for these very specific conditions, the likes of which we hadn't faced in testing. We've only just started to run the C3 WRC and we still have a lot of work ahead of us."
Despite these difficulties, Stéphane Lefebvre made every effort possible to improve. Depending on the changing road conditions, he juggled with the four types of Michelin tyres available to rack up the miles and add to his experience. From being in 64th position at the end of day one, he swept through the field up to 11th place by Saturday evening!
On Sunday, the fourth and final leg was contested in the hills above Monaco, with two runs on the legendary Col de Turini. In more consistent conditions, Stéphane Lefebvre produced a superb performance to claim the C3 WRC's first stage win on SS15, before then finishing as runner-up on the Power Stage. These impressive performances helped him to move up into ninth overall.
"It was really good for morale to finish the rally on a positive note," reported the Frenchman on his return to the port of Monaco. "Setting the fastest time on the Col de Turini is something special. But most of all, it points to some of the car's potential in more normal conditions."
A VERY PROMISING RACE FOR CRAIG BREEN
Whilst awaiting the entry of a third C3 WRC – due to happen for the first time at the Tour de Corse – one of the team's young drivers is competing in a previous generation WRC. This time around, it was Craig Breen that drove the "Old Lady", as the car has been affectionately nicknamed.
On the snow-covered roads of Rallye Monte-Carlo, the Irishman produced a genuinely impressive performance to finish fifth overall. And for a good portion of the rally, he crossed swords with Dani Sordo for fourth place. The Spaniard gained the upper hand, however, when the conditions dried out, making the most of the power advantage of the 2017 machines.
In any event, Craig's performance was hailed by keen observers. Never truly comfortable on his previous outings here, he felt he made something of a breakthrough. All of which augurs well for Rally Sweden – which he will be contesting in a C3 WRC – or for the 2018 Rallye Monte-Carlo!
ALREADY FOCUSING ON SWEDEN
"We won't forget about this rally, because there are things that we can take from it which will be useful in 2018," commented Yves Matton. "But in the short and medium term, we are going to put this weekend behind us and move on. We remain positive, for Sweden, obviously, but also for Mexico and all of the subsequent rounds. Monte-Carlo can be a cruel rally and we experienced that first hand this weekend. Our aim is still to win races in normal conditions this season."
In order to fine-tune its preparations for Rally Sweden (9-12 February), the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT will, as planned, be holding two days of testing in Scandinavia. These sessions will supplement the work done at the start of January.
FIGURES AND STATISTICS
* 501.92km: distance covered by the Citroën C3 WRCs on the stages
* 7.4: the average finishing position of Stéphane Lefebvre on the stages completed
* 1.34s per km: the average gap between Craig Breen's time and the time of the stage winner
* 90.40kph: the ideal average speed, obtained using the the winning times on each stage