Kris Meeke has enthused his joy after Citroen's initial test of its 2017 challenger in a trouble-free week of gravel running in France.
Citroen's test driver Alexandre Bengue was handed the honour of the debuting the C3 WRC machine in a shakedown before handing over to Meeke for an extensive test overseen by the squad's new technical director Laurent Fregosi.
Citroen's young star Craig Breen, who recently claimed victory in ERC's Circuit of Ireland event in a Citroen DS3 R5, was given the final day of testing the 2017 challenger and all three drivers gave glowing accounts of their experiences.
Meeke, who will lead the Citroen charge when it returns to WRC next year as a fully-fledged manufacturer entry, has relished the changes in the squad's set up as it uses 2016 to shift its focus away from the World Touring Car Championship and towards WRC.
The Northern Irishman has hailed his initial outing with the C3 as a fascinating blend between the new power and aerodynamic regulations.
“When I joined the Citroën Racing fold two years ago, the priority was the WTCC and the development of the WRC was fairly limited,” Meeke said. “Now, you can feel there's a real energy, with engineers coming back to rally with experience they have gathered on the track.
“It's always exciting to drive a car for the first time. But this is different, this is the start of a major new programme for Citroën Racing and new era for the WRC.
“With the power and the aerodynamic efficiency, these cars are fascinating. After my first run, one of the mechanics filmed the expression on my face. I didn't realise it at the time, but the big smile on my face spoke volumes about how much I had enjoyed driving the new car.
“As soon as we set off, I felt that I was driving a genuine rallying machine, a well-designed car. I have been involved in the development of several cars in my time; generally speaking, you spend more time waiting around than driving in the first few test sessions. But with this, I was able to rack up the miles and start to explore the set-up options. It was like a dream.”
For 2017 WRC is set for a regulations revamp to introduce more powerful and exciting cars to encourage more aggressive-looking challengers. Engine specifications have been increased to up power output to around 380hp while the cars will also be made 25kg lighter.
Citroen team boss Yves Matton says the team enjoyed pain-free running without a single major technical problem and is thrilled with the early progress.
“The team has done a fantastic job to design a car based on the new regulations,” Matton said. “Having seen our World Rally Car begin road testing on schedule and complete runs without experiencing any major problems, we can take our time in confirming the upcoming milestones.
“It is very much in line with what we had imagined when we talked about the new regulations, which were devised to make the cars more spectacular. All the factors we had wanted to improve – the noise, impression of speed and aggressive design – are already in evidence, even though this was only the car's very first test outing.”
Citroen also confirmed it will stay focused on gravel testing until it is satisfied with its pace and specification before moving on to tarmac later in the year.