Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle emerged victorious in Mexico to claim the Citroën C3 WRC’s first win. Secured on gravel – the surface on which the majority of the World Championship is contested – this result confirms the potential of the car developed by Yves Matton’s troops. The season is now really up and running for Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT, which will be entering three cars at the forthcoming Tour de Corse.
From the very outset, it seemed that this year’s Rally Mexico would be like no other. To begin with, the organisers managed to pull off something of a feat in holding a super special stage right in the middle of Mexico City, on the famous Zócalo square. Despite the rain, this new experience gave fans in the huge city an exclusive opportunity to witness the WRCs up close.
Unfortunately, the journey back to the service park in León, 400km from the capital, ended in disarray. A road traffic accident unrelated to the rally led to the road being closed, leaving the convoy transporting the cars stranded for several hours overnight. Their late arrival back in León resulted in the first two stages on Friday morning being cancelled.
The race therefore only really began with the rally’s 55km-long marathon stage, El Chocolate. Making the most of his tyre choice and a good starting position, Kris Meeke grabbed the stage win to move into the overall lead. The Briton also won one of the evening’s super special stages to end the first full day as leader, having already established a healthy 20.9s lead over Sébastien Ogier.
Meanwhile, in the other Citroën C3 WRC, Stéphane Lefebvre also made a good start to the race. He ended the day sixth overall, following the plan drawn up for him by the team to the letter on his first appearance at Rally Mexico in a WRC. However, the young Frenchman was then forced to retire in somewhat unfortunate circumstances on day three. Following a minor error, the no.8 C3 ended up stuck on a slope just off the road on a corner on SS10. The car was undamaged in the incident, so he was able to rejoin the next day under Rally2 rules.
Meanwhile, Kris Meeke continued his dominant display, tying for first place on El Brinco (SS11) and setting the fastest aggregate time over the morning’s stages. On the second pass, he claimed a stage win on Lajas de Oro (SS13) and extended his lead over Sébastien Ogier to 30.9s.
On Sunday, there “only” remained two stages to complete in order to see out this maiden win for the Citroën C3 WRC. On El Calera, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT drivers scored an impressive team result, with Meeke taking the stage win and Lefebvre finishing third.
On the Derramadero Power Stage, Kris Meeke looked like he was on course to seal the victory… when he went off the road just a few corners from the finishing line! The Northern Irishman ran wide after a big compression, through the hedge and into the middle of spectator car park! He nonetheless stayed calm, managed to find a way back onto the road within a few seconds and made it across the finishing line to win the rally by 13.8s!
After such an incredibly dramatic, stressful finish to the race, there were scenes of joy and excitement in the Citroën Racing team and they celebrated with Meeke and Nagle at a very noisy, passionate podium ceremony in León.
Once things had calmed down a little bit, Yves Matton was able to deliver his verdict on the weekend’s events. “This first win on gravel shows that the Citroën C3 WRC has some very solid foundations and that the team has done a good job. We can now continue to develop the car in a slightly more relaxed manner,” emphasized the Citroën Racing Team Principal. “If we’d had to choose, then obviously we would have loved to win at Monte-Carlo, which is a rally that has a special meaning for Citroën.
But we have to keep our feelings out of this and look at things pragmatically. In terms of the World Championship, this result on gravel – on which around two thirds of the season is contested – and in the particularly demanding conditions encountered in Mexico, is very encouraging going forward.”
What with the altitude – El Chocolate peaks at more than 2,700 metres above sea level – and the high temperatures on Friday afternoon, the cars were sorely tested in Central America. Of the many pleasing aspects of the weekend, the perfect reliability of the Citroën C3 WRCs is high on the list. “We worked a lot on the cooling systems when developing the car,” reiterated Laurent Fregosi, Citroën Racing’s Technical Director. “In the short to medium term, the fact we have no issues means we can focus fully on looking for extra performance.”
Making the most of his road position on Friday’s leg, Kris Meeke grabbed the overall rally lead by adopting a quick but measured pace, without taking any unnecessary risks. “The target was to be well placed for the next few days,” explained Yves Matton. “From Saturday onwards, when his road position was broadly similar to his direct rivals, he remained quick and was able to control the race from the front. And yet his knowledge of the Mexican stages was somewhat limited, having only previously competed here twice before this year. We also shouldn’t forget that he drove the entire rally with two spare tyres. We chose to play it safe with this more conservative approach and we’re pleased with the performance level achieved despite carrying the extra weight.”
“As regards Stéphane Lefebvre, he made a good start, with the kind of pace we had asked him to adopt. We didn’t want him to focus on pushing for fast times, but rather to gather as much experience as possible,” continued Yves Matton. “He applied himself very well before getting caught out on Saturday morning. He was really unlucky to find himself stuck right next to the road with no damage at all to the car! On Sunday morning, he was able to show how much has progressed with a road position similar to that of the leaders. He produced a great performance on SS18 to set the third fastest time, just behind the top two. He showed that he could be fast on this surface, despite also being very short on experience at this rally.”
After this, the season’s opening gravel round, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT now turns its attention to the next event. At the Tour de Corse (6-9 April), three Citroën C3 WRCs will compete for the first time, driven by Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle, Craig Breen/Scott Martin and Stéphane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau. Before then, the team will be holding a test session on tarmac in order to fine-tune its preparations for the Corsica round.
Words & Images : Citroen Racing