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Thierry Neuville claimed his maiden win of the new-era 2017 FIA World Rally Championship season in Corsica to end his victory curse.
The Belgian won the four-day Che Guevara Energy Drink Tour de Corse (6-9 April) by 54,7sec in a Hyundai i20, having crashed out of the lead in both Monte-Carlo and Sweden earlier in the year.
Neuville becomes the fourth different driver to win in the opening four rounds of the highly-competitive WRC, each representing a different manufacturer. The last season in which four different teams won consecutive events was 1987.
Neuville was patient while he fine-tuned his car’s set-up on Friday for the narrow and twisty mountain road speed tests on the Mediterranean island. He grabbed the initiative on Saturday when pace-setting Kris Meeke retired from the lead with engine problems and eased through Sunday’s finale.
“The feeling is amazing,” enthused the victorious Hyundai ace. “Special thanks to the team, they have always believed in me and kept pushing me after Monte-Carlo and Sweden. I struggled a bit in the opening day and I wasn’t sure we could win this event, but we came back and turned it around.”
Sébastien Ogier extended his championship lead to 13 points after passing Dani Sordo in the grueling asphalt event’s final speed test. Electrical problems slowed the Frenchman’s Ford Fiesta in the previous special stage to allow the Spaniard ahead, but he overturned a 2,5sec deficit to cross the finish 1,7sec ahead of his rival.
“It’s been a tough rally but a podium is better than nothing,” said a frustrated Ogier, whose victory chances ended on Saturday afternoon with hydraulic problems. “We had no power and no handbrake on the last stage, lots of problems.”
Sordo’s i20 had 13,6sec in hand over Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn threw caution to the wind in the final test to relegate Craig Breen to fifth by just a tenth of a second. An extra for Latvala was that fastest time earned him maximum Power Stage bonus points.
Breen was one of the few drivers to enjoy an error-free weekend in his Citroën C3 and the Irishman finished more than a minute ahead of Hayden Paddon. Asphalt is the Kiwi’s least-favoured surface and a final stage overshoot in his i20 summed up his weekend.
Five-time Dakar Rally motorbike winner Cyril Despres was Red Bull TV’s special guest reporter in Corsica bringing a new perspective by tackling the famous Novella special stage on two wheels – a 900cc Yamaha motorbike; maybe not quite the off-road machine on which he achieved his famous desert wins, but still with enough power to make the whole experience memorable, especially for the passenger on the back.
Novella was Red Bull TV’s live stage on the Tour de Corse on Saturday, located close to the west coast of the island. The 17-kilometre section was typical of everything Corsica’s legendary rally is all about: narrow mountain roads, rapid asphalt, a non-stop succession of switchback corners and jaw-dropping scenery. It’s a breathless assault on the senses.
And while Cyril’s epic adventures in the Dakar on two wheels were always solitary (as cross country riders have to ride and navigate all by themselves), this time the Frenchman had a familiar face along for the ride and a chat: Red Bull TV host Mike Chen.
“For me, the best two ways to enjoy Corsica are probably either driving a rally car, or riding a motorbike,” reported Cyril. “On a bike, you appreciate the skill of the WRC drivers even more. Honestly, riding down the stage, it was hard to imagine some of the speeds that the rally cars are reaching and how late they are braking. Despite the big drops!
“There was just one straight at the beginning and then it was all corners: mostly very narrow, and you really don’t want to get it wrong. Then the bit actually through the village of Novella, just centimetres away from the houses, was amazing. It was been great fun to explore and discover all the details. Although I must say that I’m normally used to having more glamourous riders on the back of my bike! Without a beard…”
The WRC championship returns to gravel for round five when Villa Carlos Paz hosts YPF Rally Argentina on 27-30 April.
Tour de Corse (6-9 April) – Final Results
1 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 3h22m53,4s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +54,7s
3 Dani Sordo/Marc Marti (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +56,0s
4 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m09,6s
5 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m09,7s
6 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2m16,3s
FIA World Rally Championship (round 4 of 13):