Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville powered into the lead of Rallye de France-Alsace today. Thanks to an inspired tyre strategy from the team, the young Belgian is well and truly in the hunt for securing a maiden victory in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC).
“It has been a perfect afternoon for us. We had faultless information from the team and our weather crews – so a big congratulations to them because we would not be in first place if it was not for them! I felt really comfortable and we were able to push without taking any big risks. I felt confident all day.
“It will be a new experience for me running first on the road. I have never been first [on the road] on Tarmac so I will have to learn quickly. I will have to make my own lines and I won’t have the benefit of seeing the other drivers’ braking points and if there is standing water it could be difficult. But I am happy to be in first place this evening, and we will just have to wait and see if I am still holding this position tomorrow.”
Contesting two loops of three identical stages south-west of the Strasbourg-based service park, Neuville was keen to build on his second fastest time in yesterday’s opening Power Stage, and did just that by piloting his Ford Fiesta RS WRC to the top of the standings.
Despite some slight time loss on the opening test (SS2), Neuville regrouped brilliantly over the following stages. With a diagonal configuration of Michelin’s hard and soft compound tyres for the 34.34 kilometres of ‘Vosges – Pays d’Omont 1’ (SS4), the Belgian was on top form. Trading fastest splits throughout the drying stage, he and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul posted the second fastest time – some 20 seconds faster than the WRC’s newly crowned champion Sébastien Ogier.
As for the afternoon loop, Neuville was in a class of his own. Whereas others predicted rain, the Qatar M-Sport team got their weather reports spot on. With the optimum tyre choice, the Belgian posted the fastest time on all of the afternoon’s three stages. Utilising the harder compound rubber to full effect, the Qatari outfit’s rising star goes into tomorrow’s stages with a 9.9 second lead over Dani Sordo, reviving the memory of the pairing’s epic battle at Rallye Deutschland last month.
In the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, the Alsace weather played havoc with Evgeny Novikov’s opening loop as the Russian elected to clad his Fiesta RS WRC with Michelin’s harder tyre. Yet despite being somewhat disadvantaged, the Russian set some promising times.
Following the example of their fellow Qatar M-Sport crews, Novikov and co-driver Ilka Minor once again opted for the harder compound for the second pass and were immediately on the pace – setting the third fastest time though ‘Klevener 2’ (SS5). On course for another strong result, the Muscovite currently holds sixth place overall.
In the sister Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta, the weather also proved pivotal for Mads Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson. Suffering from the worst of the rain through SS2, the Norwegian took a cautious approach – minimising any risk to complete the morning loop in ninth place overall.