BRENTWOOD, England - Rallye Monte-Carlo lived up to its billing as one of the most difficult events of them all as treacherous conditions decimated the field and forced organisers to cancel two stages on safety grounds.
Qatar M-Sport’s Mads Østberg was the first Fiesta RS WRC driver home in sixth place. Nonetheless, Fiestas proved competitive throughout the rally with each of the four Qatar M-Sport drivers taking a fastest time from the event – Thierry Neuville on Shakedown, Evgeny Novikov on SS6 and SS7, Juho Hänninen on SS9 and Østberg on SS12
Novikov had been running in a strong podium position before succumbing to the perfidious conditions lying in wait through the fearsome ‘Col de Turini’ stage on the 14th test. Damaging the rear-left wheel of his Fiesta some three kilometres into the stage, the Russian was forced into retirement having impressed on what was only his second venture to the season’s opening classic.
The lack of grip caused by melting snow and ice on SS14 also caught out team-mate Juho Hänninen, who damaged the front-left wheel of his Qatari-liveried Fiesta. The Finn had been running strongly – securing the fastest time on SS9, a full 6.6 seconds quicker than his nearest rival.
But it was Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson who were to make the most of the tricky conditions. Claiming a stage win on the third day of competition, the Norwegian joined just a handful of drivers to have impressed to such an extent on their Monte debut. Adopting a composed approach over the final day, Østberg proved he has the maturity as well as the speed.
Despite narrowly avoiding disaster on SS16 when he slid wide and damaged the rear of his Fiesta, the 25-year-old kept his composure. Making it back to service, Østberg secured his sixth place as organisers opted to cancel the final two stages on safety grounds.
“Considering the conditions that we have encountered here, I am very happy to have finished the rally and to take some strong points away from what has been a really difficult event for us,” said Østberg. “We’ve learnt a lot and made a lot of progress, so that is something positive. Now I am looking forward to Sweden and an event that I know really well!”
Team principal Malcolm Wilson said: “Obviously the rally didn’t end the way we would have wanted with Evgeny [Novikov] and Juho [Hänninen] not making the finish, but I think that there are still a lot of positives that we can take from this event.
“All of the drivers put in a great performance and I think they’ve all shown a lot of potential. When you take youngsters to an event like this it is always going to be a challenge. Experience counts for a lot here, and especially this year with some of the worst conditions the rally has seen in more than 20 years.
“The whole team is now looking forward to the challenges ahead. Looking at the performance these young guys have shown, I am sure that we will be in contention for some top results as the season progresses.”