In with a chance of winning another two titles this weekend, Sébastien Loeb, Daniel Elena and the Citroën Total World Rally Team made the perfect start to the Rallye de France on the first full day of racing.
With a slender lead of 13.1s over their closest challengers, the eight-time World Champions must nonetheless remain alert. Third overall, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen showed that they are continuing to make progress on tarmac.
After competing in the first test on Thursday evening in the streets of Strasbourg, the crews headed south to complete the three stages concentrated around Munster. Combining the Hohlandsbourg and Firstplan tests – the very first stage completed by Sébastien Loeb on his competitive debut in 1997 – SS2 saw the famous man from Alsace take control of proceedings. After going fastest again on SS3, Seb lost out on SS4 to Jari-Matti Latvala by just a tenth of a second.
Leading by 7.5s at the day’s half-way stage, the eight-time World Champion was pleased with his start to the rally: “We were very undecided when it came to choosing tyres this morning, because the roads were dry in places and wet in other places. We went for a compromise with four hard and two soft Michelin Pilot Sport tyres. It looks like it was a good solution, as we are in front. We’ll see everyone’s true performance levels this afternoon, when we’ll all have hard tyres.”
Second after SS2, Mikko Hirvonen had slipped to third in the overall standings by the end of the loop. “I made the same tyre choice as Seb, but I went for a different mix,” confirmed Mikko at the remote service park in Colmar. “I was a little bit too cautious at certain points, but I also wanted to check my pace notes during the first runs.”
Sébastien Loeb produced a flawless display on the second loop to stretch his lead considerably in the afternoon. Despite losing a few seconds on the Mulhouse super special stage, which concluded a long day’s racing, he returned to Strasbourg with a 13-second lead: “Things went well today. We made good tyres choices, maintained a strong pace and made no mistakes. It’s still very close, but I’m not surprised by that. I know that Latvala is now very competitive on tarmac and I had to push really hard to stay in front. I’m not exactly taking it easy, but I’m not taking any unnecessary risks either.”
Constantly among the leaders throughout the afternoon, Mikko Hirvonen was also pleased with his day: “Overall, it’s not bad, even though I’m losing my voice a little and I’m having a bit of difficulty in speaking! I still lack confidence on the quicker sections. However, I think I have taken another step forward. Now I just need to make the next one! I’m going to try to do just that tomorrow, because Petter Solberg is less than a second behind me. I also need to keep the pressure on Jari-Matti.”
While the no.1 DS3 WRC drove into the service park, as ever cheered on by the very enthusiastic crowds, Yves Matton assessed how the day had gone: ”For the moment, the race is progressing perfectly and we are on course to achieve our goal of winning both titles this weekend. We made the right tyre choices and both our crews have produced flawless performances today. The gaps are still small though, and we note that, very much like at the Wales Rally GB, our rivals have also produced an excellent performance level. We’ll have to keep pushing hard tomorrow.”
NEUVILLE IN THE THICK OF IT
Having been the first leader of the rally after going fastest on SS1, Thierry Neuville produced a solid performance throughout the day. After dropping back to 6th place after SS2, he first moved past Solberg and then Sordo before spinning on SS5. He dropped back to sixth again, but remained in that position at the end of the leg: “I’m pleased to be on the pace. I lost too much time for my liking on the Mulhouse stage. We have learned a lot again today, both in terms of driving and regarding our approach to the set-up of the car.”
Thirteenth overall, Nasser Al-Attiyah was all smiles when he got back to the Zénith de Strasbourg: “I’m just very happy. The team worked very hard to prepare a car for me that is easy to drive and I’m pleased with what I did. My times weren’t bad and I improved throughout the day. This is my best rally on tarmac.”
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