CROATIA - After an exciting weekend in Zagreb, the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team narrowly miss out on their third podium result of the season, with Irishman Craig Breen taking fourth place overall on one of the trickiest asphalt events in recent years.
M-Sport Ford’s fleet of four Puma Rally1s fought against unprecedented conditions in Zagreb this weekend, all crews showing the true pace of the all-new car on asphalt over the course of the event. After heavy rain and low temperatures created some exceptional road conditions, any crew that finished the event did exceptionally well and M-Sport were rewarded with three out of four cars crossing the finish line on Sunday afternoon. The highlight of the weekend was seeing Craig Breen’s strong result elevating him to third in the drivers’ championship.
Craig Breen and Paul Nagle showed a consistently strong performance from start to finish, setting the third fastest time in SS1 on Friday morning and going on to set a further 10 top five fastest times throughout the rest of the weekend. Friday saw the Irishman end the day in fourth position, but a late-night penalty for Neuville saw Breen elevated into third by a margin of 28.8 seconds. Saturday saw Breen hold onto third place, the duo expertly navigating the poor visibility and very wet roads to make it through the stages with no issues, and head into the final day with a podium in sight, but their gap to fourth place had been cut down to 4.9 seconds.
The crew started Sunday positively, losing only 0.4 seconds to Belgian Neuville, but then drama would start to unfold. Unexpected heavy rain on the penultimate stage saw the crew’s tyre choice become a big disadvantage to the competition, seeing them lose over a minute and a half to Neuville. They would head into the final Power Stage with little chance to fight for the final podium position. A late scare for Neuville was not enough to capture one of the top steps, but their committed drive on the final test saw them rewarded with an additional two drivers’ Power Stage points.
Gus Greensmith, alongside Jonas Andersson, delivered a very intelligent drive over the weekend and the pairing were on track for a strong finish until misfortune struck on Friday afternoon. Expertly saving a slide up a bank on SS1, Greensmith ended the first morning loop in fifth overall. Despite keeping the same pace throughout the afternoon loop, where conditions had dramatically worsened, a bout of bad luck saw him collect three punctures in two stages, with only two spares in the car the Brit had no option but to retire his car at the tail-end of the first day as he ran out of tyres to get him back to the service area in Zagreb.
Back on the road on Saturday morning, Greensmith was on excellent form and enjoying the stages. A third fastest time in SS10 saw him making some impressive jumps and commitment. The Brit maintained this strong pace throughout the rest of the day, but, due to Friday’s bad luck, the crew’s overall position had suffered. Sunday would see him focus on a clean run to the finish and a push over the Power Stage was a good end to the tricky event and sees him continue his consistent approach to the championship.
Pierre-Louis Loubet and his co-driver Vincent Landais delivered an impressive drive on their first top-level WRC event with the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. The crew unfortunately picked up a double puncture in SS1 which, when followed by one more in the following stage, meant they were out of tires and had to retire for the day. Nevertheless, Saturday gave the pair a fresh start and M-Sport’s new recruits gradually gained pace throughout the day, setting a fourth fastest time in SS12 during the morning loop.
The crew maintained their strong pace on Sunday and finished the event with no issues and a positive feeling as they head towards their next event in Portugal.
Adrien Fourmaux and Alex Coria saw the wet conditions get the better of them in SS3, the car aquaplaning off the road. The crew were not injured but the car sustained extensive damage, and they were forced to retire from the event.
In the WRC2 category, Jari Huttunen set some strong times in his Ford Fiesta Rally2 on his first outing in Croatia, including a stage win in SS5. A small off in SS7 unfortunately took him down a bank, meaning the crew had to be recovered. Huttunen completed the rest of the weekend with no major issues and gathered valuable experience over the very tricky stages.
Craig Breen, said:
“Obviously the weather made it an incredibly difficult weekend, but we made it through. For sure Paul and I learnt a lot, plus we managed to get some points in the power stage, and points for coming fourth. Unfortunately, a little mistake on the tyre choice on Sunday morning maybe ruled us out of a podium place, but apart from that we have to be satisfied.”
Gus Greensmith, said:
“The weekend started out well and we were fifth after Friday morning. Going into the afternoon, if we look at the splits and times for the rest of the weekend, I think that was a realistic position for us to have held. But unfortunately, we had a lot of punctures - five in total - which took us out of the running completely. We had some good speed, but it is disappointing to walk away from the weekend with no points.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet, said:
“We can be happy with the pace for this first rally with the team. To be able to fight with the guys felt good and in some stages I think we were close to doing our first fastest stage time. We need to continue in this way and this has been a great start to build our confidence.”
Adrien Fourmaux, said:
“It was at the start of the rally where I lost control of the car due to some aquaplaning. It was a really unfortunate mistake and not the way I planned to start the rally, the approach was to get points for the team and get through what was going to be a tricky rally.
“I’m really sorry to the team and partners, and to all the fans who came out to watch.”
Jari Huttunen, WRC2 Driver, said:
“It has been a difficult weekend, but I enjoyed my first event in Croatia and I think I have learnt a lot about Tarmac rallying. I am pleased we got a stage win on Saturday morning, and we had some okay speed in other places too. It was a shame to retire on Friday, but I think I will learn from my mistake and we can do more next time.”
Rich Millener, Team Principal, said:
“I think we should be happy with some elements of our weekend. Craig has another strong finish seeing him lifted to third in the drivers’ championship, but the unfortunate punctures for both Gus and Pierre saw them unable to show the true potential of their speed. This weekend has seen the crews face some of the craziest conditions in the WRC for a long while, so I think getting points on the board is important for us as a team. We all know we need to improve in Portugal, but I think it’s an event all our drivers like, so for now, I would like to thank all the Croatian fans and organisers for another great running of this, quickly becoming iconic, event.”