Contested on muddy gravel roads in the Welsh forests, the opening leg of Wales Rally GB served up plenty of drama and incident. At the end of day one, during which the crews covered more than half of the total distance of timed sections, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle are in very much in the hunt for a place on the podium. On his return to the WRC, Stéphane Lefebvre ended the opening leg ninth overall alongside his co-driver Gilles de Turckheim. Meanwhile, Quentin Gilbert and Renaud Jamoul completed their first day competing for the Abu Dhabi Total WRT in fifteenth place.
After Thursday evening’s ceremonial start in Colwyn Bay, the crews were up very early on Friday morning for day one of Wales Rally GB. The cars headed south after leaving Deeside at 5.30am. Following a 130km road section, the competitors set off in the fog on the opening stage, Myherin. 32km of wet roads later, an initial pecking took shape. All at something of a disadvantage due to their position in the running order, the Abu Dhabi Total WRT crews experienced contrasting fortunes. Craig Breen was immediately up in fourth position, whilst Kris Meeke was sixth. Learning about the typically Welsh conditions was a trickier task for Stéphane Lefebvre (13th) and Quentin Gilbert (21st).
The morning continued with the short Sweet Lamb stage before the crews tackled Hafren (35km). Kris Meeke’s fine form took him up to third position, whilst Craig Breen fell back to sixth overall. Meanwhile, Stéphane Lefebvre and Quentin Gilbert both gained several positions in the overall standings.
The morning loop concluded with Dyfnant, which saw no further drama or incidents at the front of the field. The crews then headed for Newton, where they were able to fit a set of fresh Michelin LTX Force tyres.
In the opening few kilometres of the second pass on Myherin, Craig Breen went off the road. After rolling his car several times, the Irishman was forced to retire. Kris Meeke dropped to fourth position, whilst Stéphane Lefebvre sneaked into the top 10.
With the gaps remaining small, the positions changed as showers and patches of fog made life difficult for the crews. After reclaiming third position, Kris Meeke ended the leg fifth overall, just 5.8 seconds adrift of third place. Stéphane Lefebvre headed for the service park in ninth position, whilst Quentin Gilbert ended the day fifteenth.
After Craig Breen made it back to the service park, the team examined his car with a view to him rejoining tomorrow under Rally2 rules. Unfortunately, the car was too badly damaged and so Craig has therefore had to retire from the rally altogether.
Kris Meeke: “It was a very, very long day! We weren’t expecting the conditions to be so difficult, with a lot of rain and fog. We also know that it’s in this type of situation where the lack of development on the car tends to show the most. I feel that I did my best and I enjoyed driving out there today, even though I was bit frustrated when I saw my times at the end of the stages! We’re not far off the podium, so we go again tomorrow!”
Craig Breen: “We had a good morning; the level of performance was enough to put me in the top five. I still had a bit of moment at one point so I was trying to get the balance right between pushing and being cautious. I wanted to use what we had learned during the first pass this afternoon, but we were a bit unlucky on SS5. The car skidded and the front hit a bank on the inside of a corner. We did several rolls and we weren’t then able to get away again under own steam. It’s frustrating, but these things happen in rallying.”
Stéphane Lefebvre: “I think I could have been a little bit higher up the standings, but we didn’t choose the right set-up. We thought that the roads would be drier and I lacked traction in the twisty sections. We had to make the best of this option throughout the day because there was no mid-leg service. In any case, I feel that I got the maximum out of what I had to work with and I’m pleased to finish the leg without having made any mistakes. We’ll be back tomorrow with the set-up that worked well last year and that should make things better.”
Quentin Gilbert: “We started at an extremely cautious pace. With the fog and lack of grip, the first stage had the worst possible conditions for building confidence! We improved as we completed more stages, reducing the gap with the leading drivers. I can’t wait to get back out there tomorrow. It was a joy to drive this car, everything works perfectly and I was really enjoying it despite the difficulties of the course.”
STANDINGS AFTER DAY 1
1. Ogier / Ingrassia (VW Polo R WRC) 1:44:31.2
2. Tänak / Molder (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +37.3
3. Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) +1:09.0
4. Paddon / Kennard (Hyundai i20 WRC) +1:12.8
5. Meeke / Nagle (DS 3 WRC) +1:14.8
6. Sordo / Marti (Hyundai i20 WRC) +2:07.2
7. Østberg / Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +2:37.3
8. Latvala / Anttila (VW Polo R WRC) +3:43.6
9. Lefebvre / de Turckheim (DS 3 WRC) +4:31.6
10. Lappi / Ferm (Skoda Fabia R5) +4:55.0
… 15. Gilbert / Jamoul (DS 3 WRC) +7:04.2