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 further 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, 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.
QUESTIONS FOR PIERRE BUDAR, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
How do you assess the team’s performance at this rally, contested very shortly after your change in ‘driver’ policy?
In the context of our current situation, I think you have to say we met our new targets. Both cars made it to the finish intact – and in the points – and they had no reliability issues. Although our position down the running order on the opening leg was by no means an advantage with the rain, we made a few minor mistakes on Friday. They proved costly in terms of time and also meant that our crews were forced to open the road for the next two days, so from that point onwards, we couldn’t really have hoped for a better outcome. Our only remaining target was to pick up a few manufacturers’ points and acquire some data so that we can come back even better prepared next year.
How is the team dealing with the current situation?
Although they are all real competitors, and are therefore desperate to achieve better results, they have also understood that we’re in a rebuilding process. We’re trying to establish new, solid foundations in order to move forwards, setting our sights on 2019, and this might take some time. During the transitional phase that we are going through at the moment, all the members of the team remain united and focused on their respective jobs. We know that we have a good car. The C3 WRC is competitive on all surfaces and we are determined to constantly keep improving it a little bit more. As soon as all the ingredients come together, we’ll be back amongst the leaders again