THE VERDICT FROM JYVÄSKYLÄ
One the season's flagship events, Rally Finland more than lived up to expectations, serving up a breathtaking spectacle in the land of a thousand lakes. Once again, all three of the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT's C3 WRCs made it to the finish. Craig Breen and Scott Martin secured the team's best result with fifth place, after a rally that was largely dominated by Finnish cars and drivers.
THE STORY OF THE RACE
For the first time this season, a Citroën C3 WRC set the fastest time in the shakedown. Despite driving in cold, wet conditions for most of the pre-event test, Kris Meeke topped the timesheets on the Ruuhimäki stage, widely regarded as being representative of the rest of the rally. After kicking off proceedings on Thursday evening with the Harju street stage, the Northern Irishman produced another fine performance on Friday morning's opening speed test to grab second place, just a tenth off the stage-winning time.
The rest of this monster leg – with twelve stages spread over fifteen hours – was less positive for last year's rally winner. Lacking confidence, he fell off the pace and then lost further time in the afternoon after bending his steering when he hit a rock. At the end of the day, he held ninth place, just over a minute behind the leader.
At the same time, Craig Breen earned his spurs as the Flying Irishman. Having moved into third position after SS2, he then showed an impressive level of consistency. Despite a set-up and pace notes that might have been better in places, he held onto a top five spot, along with four Finnish drivers! As he arrived back in Jyväskylä at the end of this long day, Craig was fourth overall, 33s behind Esapekka Lappi.
Saturday's schedule was barely lighter than that of the previous day. The itinerary included two runs on the famous Ouninpohja stage, often compared to riding on a rollercoaster since it features no fewer than 75 jumps, invariably driven flat out!
During the morning loop, the Citroën drivers were surprised by the level of grip, which was much lower than on Friday. In these low-grip conditions, they were unable to match the pace of their rivals in less effective C3 WRCs. Kris Meeke also had further issues with his steering, related his minor impact on Friday.
With the loose gravel swept off the roads, the second pass was more positive. The best performance was recorded by Kris Meeke, who set the fourth fastest time on Ouninpohja 2. On the final speed test of the day, the Ulsterman lost a minute after picking up a puncture and the tyre then exploding, which ripped off part of the bodywork.
On Saturday evening, Craig held fifth place – less than half a minute behind second position – whilst Kris was eighth, three minutes adrift.
Sunday's leg featured just four short stages. With clear gaps between the competitors, the Citroën drivers opted to make sure of their positions. Driven by Khalid Al Qassimi, the third Citroën C3 WRC crossed the final podium in sixteenth position.
QUESTIONS FOR YVES MATTON, CITROËN RACING TEAM PRINCIPAL
How would you assess this weekend at Rally Finland?
"I think we showed that the Citroën C3 WRC is continuing to move in the right direction. Kris Meeke set some good times, especially at the start of the rally with the fastest time in the shakedown, and the second best time on SS2… After that, he really struggled to match the pace of the leaders and we knew that here, this sort of situation would lead to him dropping down the standings. It's a bit of a vicious circle: the car no longer works like it should and it's then difficult to come back. He therefore ended up spending pretty much the entire weekend behind Craig Breen, who had a very good race. For the fifth time this season, he finished fifth. Above all, he was the leading ‘non-Finnish driver’ for the majority of the weekend. We saw this weekend that the local drivers were in total control. The data gathered throughout these three days of racing confirmed the areas in which we must continue to focus our efforts. We know that the car is more or less effective depending on the surfaces and the conditions. The window in which the C3 WRC works efficiently is getting bigger, but we still have some work to do."
Can you now say whether reshuffling the crews for Rally Poland was the right thing to do?
"This weekend, Kris had the right approach: when he realised that couldn't challenge for the win, he accepted it and managed his pace to make sure he completed all of the stages and set some good times when the conditions were favourable. The experience acquired this weekend is just as useful for him as it is for our engineers. To some extent, we've gone back to basics."
In three weeks, the WRC returns to tarmac in Germany. Can you tell us what your expectations are for this tenth round?
"Having won it eleven times since 2002, the ADAC Rallye Deutschland is undoubtedly Citroën's favourite event. At the Tour de Corse, we had dominated at the start of the rally before Kris had a mechanical issue. We'll therefore be determined to turn it around in Germany, but our approach will remain sensible. The roads in Corsica and Germany have little in common with each other and we know that our rivals have been doing a lot of work over the last few months. As previously announced, Kris Meeke, Craig Breen and Andreas Mikkelsen will driving the three C3 WRCs entered for the rally."
Before that, Sébastien Loeb will be driving a C3 WRC during a day of testing. What is the significance of this event?
"It's something that I had been thinking about for a little while and which has been made possible by the creation of the PSA Motorsport entity. There is a shared desire and interest in conducting this test. As far as we are concerned, we’ll be getting feedback from the greatest rally driver of all time. As for Seb, he will be able to satisfy his curiosity and drive the latest generation of World Rally Car."