Volkswagen's Jari-Matti Latvala heads the leaderboard at the end of day one of Rallye de France-Alsace.
Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen were split by just 0.7 seconds after the opening loop this morning, but Latvala managed to pull out a bit of a gap this afternoon in SS5 and SS6. Following the short 4.67 km Strasbourg super special, Mikkelsen gained fractionally - 0.3 seconds – but Latvala remains top, 8.2 seconds ahead.
“It is my dream to win a tarmac rally. Overall it has been a good day. A bit slow in the morning, but the afternoon was okay,” Latvala remarked after SS7. “I know Andreas is pushing very hard though, so we need to stay focused.”
Speaking back in service, Latvala added: “I could quite happily drive today's special stages another two or three times – they are just great fun, and I really enjoy them.
“However, they are still a big challenge. For the most part you have plenty of grip, but there are also slippery sections, on which dirt or worn rubber is on the road. You have to be alert at all times.
“It looks like I am in another battle for the lead with a team-mate. This time, however, I must keep my eye on the flying Norwegian. Big compliment to Andreas Mikkelsen, who produced a magnificent display.”
Mikkelsen, who won three stages and who was second in three others and third in SS1, was happy with his performance: “Driving the Polo on these beautiful and quick special stages is extremely enjoyable. I am loving every metre and have never felt this comfortable in a car on asphalt before,” he noted.
“I would obviously like to be in contention for my first WRC victory come the end of the rally. However, I am not willing to risk everything to achieve that. After all, there is still a long way to go before we reach the finish ramp on Sunday.
“Top priority is to secure third place in the Drivers' Championship – and our prospects do not look bad at all right now. All in all, I have had a phenomenal first day at Rally France, and would have nothing against the clean drive I have had so far continuing.”
Meanwhile, Kris Meeke has held third for most of the day, and is 14.9 seconds back in his Citroen: "I cannot catch the Volkswagens,” the Ulsterman admitted. “Instead we have to try and consolidate third place – that is very important for Citroen [in its home event].”
“I'm very pleased though with what we were able to show today. As has been the case in the last few rallies, we are in the leading group. It's important to be in a good position to get as many points as possible at the end. Our goal is still to secure second place in the Manufacturers' World Championship.”
Hyundai's Dani Sordo is next up, 28.1 seconds adrift, and very much in a Citroen 'sandwich' with Mads Ostberg fifth, 10.7 seconds back, and only just ahead of the M-Sport Fiestas of Mikko Hirvonen and Robert Kubica.
“This afternoon was a lot better than this morning. We made some changes to the car and the more mileage we did with the tyres, the better it got and the better we understood how to use them in these conditions,” Hirvonen stated.
“It was a lot better and I was happy. Now I'm more on the pace that I was looking for. I'm catching the boys in front and can hopefully challenge for fourth place and some good points over the next couple of days.”
“It's been an okay afternoon for us,” added Kubica. “We had another clean run apart from a spin on the second stage [of the afternoon, SS5]. I lost a bit of concentration into a hairpin and we had to reverse and lost about 10 seconds. After that I told myself that I had to reset, and I was really happy with my driving and the time on the next one [SS6].”
Behind, Bryan Bouffier holds eighth with Martin Prokop and Elfyn Evans ninth and tenth respectively, the latter picking up a 1 minute 40 second penalty after he was late into the mid-day service.
“It was obviously really disappointing what happened this morning as we were going really well [and were fourth], but these things happen and you just have to pick yourself up and get on with what you came here to do,” said the Welshman, who along with co-driver Daniel Barritt were left with no option but to push their Fiesta into re-group after the electronics failed within sight of the halt.
“We gained a lot of knowledge today about the tyres and how the car works on the characteristics of this event. I think that our pace has been good, so now we just need to concentrate on that – keep progressing, keep learning and keep improving the pace as the weekend goes on.”
Thierry Neuville is just outside the top ten in P11, having slipped down from fifth after turbo issues in SS2 and SS3.
Championship leader Sebastien Ogier had a day to forget, losing over 4 minutes in SS2 when he had engine problems. His problems were further compounded by a 4 minute penalty for checking in early to the SS3 time control and then in the afternoon he broke a front left damper in the first test, SS4. He ends the day 8 minutes 52.3 seconds off the lead and with his hopes of clinching the title this weekend all but gone, barring some sort of miracle.
In WRC2, Quentin Gilbert has led for most of the leg and finishes it 9.1 seconds up on Bernardo Sousa. Sebastien Chardonnet is third, but almost 2 minutes back.
Rallye de France now continues on Saturday with seven stages on the bill and a competitive distance of 125.50 kilometres.
SS8, the 18.90 km run through Vallee de Munster 1, is due to start at 08.30 hours local time [07.30 hours UK time].
Rallye de France-Alsace: Overall standings after Stage 7 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 1hr 01m 42.9s M
2. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 08.2s M
3. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 23.1s M
4. Dani Sordo Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +00m 51.2s M
5. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +01m 01.9s M
6. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 02.9s M
7. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 04.7s M
8. Bryan Bouffier Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +01m 45.7s M
9. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 24.1s M
10. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 28.1s M
11. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +03m 07.1s M
12. Dennis Kuipers M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03m 15.8s
WRC2 standings after Stage 3 (Top 3):
1. Quentin Gilbert Ford Fiesta R5 1hr 05m 35.1s WRC2
2. Bernardo Sousa Ford Fiesta RRC +00m 09.1s WRC2
3. Sebastien Chardonnet Citroen DS3 R5 +02m 04.0s WRC2
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial