Breen up to 4th in Rally de Portugal: Meeke out
Craig Breen and Scott Martin enjoyed a good start to Rally de Portugal, as day one served up an incredibly tight contest at the front and plenty of drama. The pair ended the opening leg fourth overall in their Citroën C3 WRC, 12.9s off the lead.
The rally began on Thursday evening with a super special stage held on the Lousada rallycross circuit. Stéphane Lefebvre produced the best time of the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT drivers, finishing seventh.
On Friday morning, the service at the start of the second leg was a busy one for the Citroën mechanics, who discovered an oil leak on Khalid Al Qassimi’s C3 WRC. Once the faulty connection had been replaced, the Abu Dhabi driver could set off for the day, but collected a one-minute penalty for leaving service late.
On SS2, Kris Meeke and Craig Breen moved up to join the frontrunners. On SS4 – the final stage of the morning – the team-mates were then involved in a three-way tie for the stage win along with Ott Tänak! At the end of the morning loop, Kris was second overall, 5/10ths behind Latvala, whilst Craig was fourth, 1.4s adrift of the leader.
Stéphane Lefebvre’s morning did not go quite so smoothly. On SS3, he rolled the car after a pace note misunderstanding coming into a fast corner. Since the damage was relatively superficial, the Frenchman was able to get to the end of the stage. Despite punctures on two tyres, he then managed to make it back to mid-leg service, but fell more than seven minutes behind his team-mates in the process.
Although all the competitors had chosen five soft compound Michelin LTX Force tyres for the morning loop, different options were taken for the second pass. Expecting considerable tyre wear on the deteriorating gravel roads, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi drivers opted to take two spare tyres. Kris Meeke went for a mix of three soft compound and three hard compound tyres, whilst Craig Breen and Stéphane Lefebvre opted for four softs and two hards.
The fight at the front showed no signs of letting up… and Kris Meeke moved into first place in his no.7 C3 WRC at the end of SS5. But on the next stage, the lead changed hands for the sixth time in as many stages. Kris dropped down to fifth overall due to a slow puncture.
On SS7, widely expected to be the most demanding on the cars, the Briton damaged part of the suspension following an impact with a concrete block. Like two other potential winners, he dropped out of the leading group.
Despite suffering a broken damper a few kilometres into SS7, Breen managed to hold onto fourth position. The Irishman lost a few more seconds on the two Braga super special stages, ending the leg 12.9s behind the rally leader, Tänak.
Stéphane Lefebvre enjoyed an error-free afternoon, despite a differential issue – due to his off in the morning – that meant his car was understeering.
Khalid Al Qassimi’s day was consistent with his goals. Without taking any risks on his first competitive outing in the Citroën C3 WRC, the Abu Dhabi driver kept out of trouble as he negotiated the Portuguese stages.
After spending most of the opening leg on roads near the Spanish border, day two of Rally de Portugal will be contested to the east of Porto, in the Cabreira mountains.
Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal: “Today’s events have shown why this year’s World Rally Championship is so interesting. Of the three C3 WRCs nominated to score points, two are out of the fight for a place in the top five and obviously, that’s not positive. In keeping out of trouble and with a little bit of good luck, Craig Breen has had a good day, especially when you consider how unfamiliar he is with the stages here. We’re counting on him to keep it up!”
Craig Breen: “It’s been a fantastic day, I didn’t expect to be fighting so near the front on what is effectively my first time here. I feel that I have made progress in understanding the car and my only regret was on SS7, when I damaged the damper when I hit a stone. If it hadn’t been for that, I think we could have closed the gap to the leaders!”
Stéphane Lefebvre: “It’s a shame because I felt comfortable in the C3 WRC on these roads. On SS3, we were on a fast section and there was a misunderstanding on the pace note. I carried too much speed into the corner and the car drifted wide before hitting a low bank. We rolled, but the damage wasn’t too significant. The mechanics did a great job during service, but the handling of the car was nonetheless impaired throughout the second loop. The main thing is that we are still in the race, and we’ll be trying hard to do better tomorrow.”
Khalid Al Qassimi: “We spent the day learning about what is fundamentally a very different car to the one I have been driving recently. As we completed more stages, we tried to alter the set-up to suit my driving style. There are a lot of things to learn in order to establish all the right reflexes. I’m pleased to have avoided making any mistakes.”
STANDINGS AFTER DAY 1
1. Tänak / Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) 1:37:18.5
2. Sordo / Marti (Hyundai i20 WRC) +4.6
3. Ogier / Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +5.0
4. Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) +11.1
5. Breen / Martin (Citroën C3 WRC) +12.9
6. Evans / Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +18.3
7. Hänninen / Lindstrom (Toyota Yaris WRC) +52.0
8. Lappi / Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1:12.3
… 19. Lefebvre / Moreau (Citroën C3 WRC) +8:39.4
… 20. Al Qassimi / Patterson (Citroën C3 WRC) +9:08.2