Stéphane Lefebvre takes over from Kris Meeke
"It’s bitterly disappointing to go out like this"
After challenging for the lead since the start of the Rallye Monte-Carlo, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle were forced to retire this afternoon. Meanwhile, Stéphane Lefebvre and Gabin Moreau improved their pace as they completed more stages to end the day in fifth position overall.
As is often the case at the Rallye Monte-Carlo, the day began with some serious discussions about tyre choice. With damp patches having an annoying habit of turning into ice, both Abu Dhabi Total WRT drivers decided to opt for Michelin Pilot Sport SS5 tyres (super soft slicks) for the 51km-long “Lardier et Valenca – Faye” stage.
Forced to cope with dirt pulled onto the road by the four cars ahead of him, Kris Meeke finished about ten seconds behind Sébastien Ogier. The loop continued with “St Léger les Mélèzes – La Bâtie Neuve”, including a section several kilometres long on the slopes of the Ancelle ski station. With a mix of slicks and studded tyres, the drivers had to perform something of a balancing act! Kris Meeke fell another ten seconds behind the leader, but he was pleased with his performance back at the midday service. As regards Stéphane Lefebvre, he admitted that he had never experienced such difficult conditions before! The young Frenchman held firm in seventh place, but felt under increasing pressure from Bryan Bouffier.
The afternoon got off to the best possible start for Kris Meeke, who beat Sébastien Ogier to the stage win on SS11. The gap between the leaders was 26.8s at that point, with the third-placed driver over two minutes back!
And then the race was turned on its head on the next stage. On a right-hand turn, the Northern Irishman’s car ran over a large bedrock that had come loose, which ripped off the sump guard. Kris made it to the end of the stage, but he was forced to retire shortly afterwards due to the damage caused to the gearbox and the intercooler.
After this stroke of bad luck, the team focussed all their attention and energy on Stéphane Lefebvre. Making use of what he had learned on the morning runs, he produced his best performance since the start of the rally with a fourth fastest time on SS11.
He confirmed his good form on the road back Monaco, with another fourth place on the Sisteron-Thoard stage, just 6/10th of second per kilometre off the stage-winning time. Stéphane and his co-driver Gabin Moreau returned to the Principality in fifth place in the overall standings, with a lead of over three minutes on their closest challengers.
As there is no Rally2 service facility for drivers retiring on the Saturday, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle will not be rejoining the race tomorrow. Stéphane and Gabin will be the only Abu Dhabi Total WRT representatives for the final leg’s three stages, including a run over the famous Col de Turini. The rally is scheduled to finish at 1.39pm.
Kris Meeke: “I was pleased with my morning, because my times were consistent with the road conditions that I had. There was a lot of snow and mud being pulled onto the road by the guys ahead. That’s just how it is, if I want to be first on the road in Monte-Carlo then I have to be world champion! Obviously, it’s bitterly disappointing to go out like this after coming through all the challenges of the last three days. It happened on the exit of a fast bend, I felt a big impact under the car even I had taken the same line this morning. We now know that there was a large bedrock that must have come loose as more cars completed the stage. Nevertheless, it was strong performance we produced with Paul, the team and the car, so I’m pleased about that. It’s encouraging for the rest of the season.”
Stéphane Lefebvre: “I have never experienced conditions as difficult as those we had this morning! To be honest, I’d say that last year, I found this rally almost easy. But this time around, it’s been incredibly difficult, with changes in grip every 300 metres… I was really struggling to find the feeling, between the places you could push and the sections where you had to take it more easily. We did a lot of work the team during the midday service; afterwards, the car easier to drive and I was able to up my pace. I am particularly happy about my performance on Sisteron-Thoard. The road was totally dry and I felt comfortable with the consistent conditions. I’m also pleased to be in the top 5. That was my initial goal and I’ll be trying to secure this result tomorrow.”
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