Despite finishing with both cars in the top three in the recent Rally Finand, the Abu Dhabi Total WRT is setting its sights slightly lower for next weekend's Tour de Corse.
From Ajaccio to Porto-Vecchio, the 2016 edition of the Corsican WRC round promises to be a heavyweight challenge for the competing crews. Having run at selected rounds of the series this season, the Tour marks Abu Dhabi Total WRT's first appearance at a full tarmac rally, bit its two entered crews, with Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle and Craig Breen/Scott Martin in the cockpit respectively, will now be looking to show what they can do on the island's narrow, twisty roads.
Fourth in the 2015 Tour de Corse in the DS3 WRC, Kris Meeke also competed here in 2005 and 2006 in a Citroën C2 Super 1600 and, while this will be his first tarmac rally of the year, expectations are high for the Northern Irishman after wins in Portugal and Finland on his last two outings. However, having competed last year, Meeke is well aware that it is not just the roads that will be unpredictable, with the early autumn weather also likely to be a factor. When the clouds settle over the island's mountains, conditions can deteriorate very suddenly, but not necessarily evenly across all the stages, meaning that tyre choice can become something of a nightmare.
“When I think about the Tour de Corse, it's the terrible conditions in 2015 that spring to mind: the heavy downpours, the flooding, the shortened or cancelled stages… ,” Meeke reflected, “We were looking to score points for the manufacturers' championship and my fourth place helped us to achieve that goal but, this year, I hope the conditions are kinder.
“This rally is absolutely fantastic when the roads are completely dry but, in any event, I'm expecting it to be a tough weekend to manage. On Friday morning, we start with a 50km stage with no splits so, without overdoing it, we'll have to find the right pace from the word go because otherwise you could lose a lot of time. Fortunately, Sunday's test session will give us an opportunity to make adjustments before the rally.
“As far as my objectives, it's difficult to say. Obviously, I won in Portugal and Finland, but I've always been quick on those surfaces. In Corsica, I think I would need to step up to another level. The target remains to rack up as many miles as possible to keep improving and be ready for 2017 so, while I would be very happy to finish on the podium, that's not the goal in itself.”
Breen has competed on Corsica in each of the last four years – contesting the IRC round in 2012, ERC in 2013 and 2014, and WRC2 in 2015 - but, this year, he will be taking another step forward as he contests his first tarmac rally in a WRC.
“I really love this rally,” Breen enthused, “The narrow, bumpy roads remind me of the ones you get in Ireland and perhaps that's why I feel so at home there. The rally format is different to what we are used to in the WRC. There is the added endurance dimension, with the first day with no service and a lot of miles to cover, so we'll have to adapt to this rhythm, staying calm on the long road sections before invoking a bit of fighting spirit at the start of the stages!
“That aside, we know what to expect at this rally: weather that can make tyre choice difficult, managing wear on the brakes, the need to maintain concentration on narrow, twisty 50km-long stages… It'll be difficult, starting with recce, and it would be unrealistic to try and match the podium from Finland. I would be delighted with a top-six finish!”
After taking part in development testing of the new Citroën C3 WRC this week, the Abu Dhabi Total WRT crews will be back on tarmac today [Sunday 25 September], where a test day will provide them with the opportunity to get their bearings before tackling the recce.