“It’s not about how many times you get knocked down, it’s more about how many times you get back up 💪”
It didn’t did long for the curtain to fall on Citroen’s 2017 World Rally Championship campaign, and despite winning Rally Mexico by the skin of their teeth, there wasn’t much confidence that the C3 WRC was going to be able to put it up to the other manufacturers who had all proved they had competitive packages.
By substituting Kris Meeke out for Andreas Mikkelsen midway through the year, there was a hope that Citroen would be able to reinvent themselves and their championship battle. Dungannon’s Meeke wasn’t providing the best PR for the team when he called the car “undriveable” and regularly put the car off when he drove at 11 tenths trying uphold some honour for the camp.
Having a change of personnel didn’t result in anything we didn’t already know. Mikkelsen wasn’t setting the timesheets alight, and even the ever-reliable Craig Breen was fighting a losing battle with the machine.
After exhausting possibly every avenue of excuses about why they were dragging their feet compared to the championship leaders, Yves Matton made one last stab at salvaging French pride. He called up his old friend Sebastian Loeb and invited him for a test drive. If there was one driver who knew the Citroen operation inside out it was Loeb and his nine drivers’ championship titles.
And you can imagine the heart sinking feeling in Marseille when Loeb echoed what Meeke, Breen, Mikkelsen and Lefebvre had been saying for the best part of a season. After a tarmac test in the C3 WRC, he commented that there was a lack of feeling in the rear of the car and called it a handful in changeable conditions.
The comments were taken back to the factory, and when Andreas Mikkelsen had his third and final appearance in the C3 on the sealed tarmac of Germany, the car behaved as it should have and he steered it to a respectable second overall. Of course the pace on tarmac was never really in doubt; Kris Meeke had proven the pace in Corsica before mechanical failure, but was it less than a coincidence that their second time standing on the podium came days after the magic of Loeb was sprinkled on the car.
Even with the tarmac setup dialled in, gravel is where the car really struggled. We had seen countless times over the year that if the C3 WRC got its wheels off the ground going over a jump, there was a strong chance that it wasn’t going to land again. There was an agreed feeling by the team that when on the loose, the car was lacking, and they were suffering because of that.
In true patriotic fashion, and spurred on by the Loeb effect for the tar, Citroen again called on their main man get behind the wheel. Again, the issues raised by Monsieur Loeb were addressed and properly corrected. There was no victim blaming, they did not make him sit on the side-lines until he changed his opinion; they worked like a World Championship team should and worked to develop a better car than they had.
The result? The new “C3 WRC by Loeb” was proudly on show in this weekend’s Rallye Catalunya when Kris Meeke graduated from the naughty step to the top step of the podium with an inspired drive. The mixed surface effect showed the culminated effort of the teams testing and went a long way to show that there is no substitute for experience when it comes both to the setup and the driver.
Even after the wonderful drive from himself and Paul Nagle, there is still a question as to whether or not this flawless victory is a sign that Citroen have got their game back together. When Meeke was asked at the end of the Power Stage in Spain if he is looking forward to Wales Rally GB, he remained coy. Spain wasn’t an accurate representation of a gravel event, especially not the compared to the forests of Wales.
Gravel has always been the downfall and while a win is a confidence boost for all involved, it still remains that it may be some time before the team are able to put in performances on all surfaces.
Regardless of this, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle were the real winners of the weekend; both on and off the stages. Whatever about going forward for the next event, they have regained the fickle trust of Citroen and have kept the naysayers and doubters from the door for at least another rally.