Citroen faces a rough and tough time in Greece Just before the calendar's two-month summer recess, the World Rally Championship moves on to Greece for the 54th Acropolis Rally for which Citroen Sport has entered two Citroen C4 WRCs for Sebastien...
Citroen faces a rough and tough time in Greece
Just before the calendar's two-month summer recess, the World Rally Championship moves on to Greece for the 54th Acropolis Rally for which Citroen Sport has entered two Citroen C4 WRCs for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Marti.
Last year saw the organisers of the Greek classic switch their event's base to Athens and they have again set up camp in the country's capital this time round, although this season it has moved from the Olympic Stadium to the Equestrian Centre that was also built for the 2004 Games. The rally's other notable feature concerns the route which includes some 100km of stages that will be new to competitors. The first and third legs will take crews north-west of Athens, while the second day the longest of the weekend heads out to Loutraki where a remote service park has been programmed. Saturday's action also includes two attempts at the marathon Agii Theodori stage (SS10/14, 48.88km) which, true to the Greek round's reputation, promises to be an awesome test of man and machine.
Indeed, the Acropolis Rally's stages are unique in the World Championship, as Citroen Sport's Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon explains: "This event is a very special challenge. Sardinia served as a sort of foretaste but this will essentially be the C4's maiden outing in these conditions which combine high temperatures and extremely rough, hard-packed stages where the suspension has to soak up the countless rocks that litter the surface. Reliability will play a key role and the regulations further spice up the weekend's prospects: following his retirement in Sardinia, Seb's C4 will benefit from a new chassis and engine, but Dani's engine will be starting its third event, and his chassis its second rally. Given the state of the stages, this dials in a further unknown, as well as extra pressure which we will need to overcome."
The Acropolis has rarely been successful for Citroen which has only won once in Greece from five starts. "Perhaps this year's visit will enable us to improve on that statistic," suggests Guy Frequelin. "In recent years, we have no doubt been less well prepared for this type of terrain than for the others. I hope the Citroen C4 WRC will enable us to reverse the trend. Luck can also play a big role in Greece, so let's hope it will be on our side this time."
"You do need a little luck to win the Acropolis Rally," echoes Sebastien Loeb. "The stages are varied and often interesting, but the down side is that they can be so rough in places that the event becomes something of a lottery. It's especially complex if you try to push hard, especially for the tyres." Loeb's co-driver Daniel Elena pounces on that last comment to underline what he believes to be the best tactic for the weekend's longest stage: "If you're going to have a puncture, make sure it's as near as possible to the finish..."
Dani Sordo plans to approach the final event before the break with caution: "Competing in hot weather is never easy, but everything suffers in Greece, from the crews and cars to the tyres. To avoid breaking everything, it's important to find the right pace. There are also lots of new stages this year. That should be good for me, but I have no intention of allowing that to go to my head!" Guy Frequelin's objective for the Acropolis Rally is simply to try and win! "Given our positions in both championships," he observes, "we cannot target anything less. Our disappointment in Sardinia demonstrated that even the best of them are not immune from trouble, and our rivals are just as prone to this sort of misadventure. It will be up to us to tackle the Acropolis in such a way that we don't compromise our title chances before going into the second half of the season."
Have you recovered from your disappointment in Sardinia?
"Yes and no! 'Yes' because you have to tell yourself that this sort of thing can happen to even the best of them and that nothing is sealed in either championship despite the outcome of the Italian round. 'Yes', too, because Dani put in a fine performance and that was very encouraging. Finally, 'yes' because the team worked well and we didn't have the slightest problem with the C4. On the other hand, though, the fact that this incident occurred while Seb had a good lead and wasn't even pushing is really infuriating."
Would you agree that the Acropolis is the toughest round of the season? How have you prepared for it?
"You know, despite its debonair aspects, Sardinia also has some pretty rough stages, but the terrain in Greece is indeed extremely hard and aggressive on tyres, while the heat only serves to accentuate the challenge. There is also the problem of punctures and I hope our pre-event testing will enable us to take that in our stride. In Italy, the Citroen C4 WRC proved very reliable for such a recent car. I touch wood that this will be the case again in Greece."
Once you have finished with the Acropolis Rally, will you consider that the toughest half of the season for Citroen is behind you?
"We must first of all finish this event! All the rounds are now sprints; it's almost as though the championship was just one rally comprising 16 stages. You need to do well in all of them to stand a chance of a top result at the end of the year. On paper, the rest of the season may appear favourable to Citroen but I prefer to keep up my guard. We mustn't think that the sealed surface events will be easy. Anything can happen just as easily on asphalt..."
How do you analyse your accident in Sardinia?
"Rally driving is not an exact science and we are forever on a knife-edge. At times there isn't a big difference between staying on the road and going off. What's really frustrating is that I wasn't even pushing when I made my mistake. But it happened, so we've just got to put it behind us and look forward. Neither championship has been lost and the Acropolis is only the halfway point of the season. We will still have eight rallies to make up ground after the break."
What do you remember of the 2006 Acropolis Rally?
"It was very rough! The previous years' events were based further to the north, near Lamia, and I found the stages interesting. You could push without too much fear of destroying your car. Last year, following the switch to the Athens region, the conditions were very badly cut up for the second passes and there was nothing nice about that. More than 100km of the stages are new this time round; let's hope they will be in good condition."
You have only won the Acropolis Rally once. Do you not find that strange?
"It's not the only WRC event I've only won once, but the Acropolis isn't my favourite rally either. I don't enjoy seeing the car suffer which is often the case in Greece, and a stray rock can bring your rally to a halt at any time. You're often forced to just sit in the ruts formed by the other competitors and that stops you from choosing your own lines. I hope the C4's suspension will enable us to be competitive over the rougher portions."
You were on the podium for the second time in two years in Sardinia. The island seems to be happy hunting ground for you.
"It's true we also came third in 2006, but I don't think that stems from the event because it's not really my favourite rally. The conditions are very difficult and it's so easy to make a mistake. I was a little fortunate and you mustn't forget that I would have finished fourth had it not been for Seb's retirement. I was happy to come third, though, because it meant valuable championship points for Citroen on a type of terrain where I still need to find my marks."
Even so, you seem to have found the sort of speed and consistency that will be useful in Greece?
"Along with everyone at Citroen Sport, we worked well in Sardinia. The dialogue with my engineer is improving all the time and I personally tried to stay concentrated from start to finish, which is just as well with the two Solberg brothers snapping at my heels! Some people believe I have passed a watershed. Well, let's wait and see how it goes in Greece to see if they are right. Although I am making progress, I still need to bridge the gap that separates me from the quickest drivers..."
How will you approach the Acropolis Rally?
"It's an event I enjoy only moderately. It's not much fun driving over rocks when you're stifling from the heat inside a rally car. There are portions where you can give yourself a free rein but you often have to pace yourself and make sure you don't get carried away so as not to risk damaging the car or destroying the tyres. It's a different approach and not necessarily the one I prefer. It will be important to try and score a good result for the championship."
The 2007 Acropolis Rally in brief
* This will be the 54 edition of the Acropolis Rally.
* All the event's facilities (service park, HQ, media room, parc ferme) are this year based at the Olympic Equestrian Centre in Markopoulo, 15.5km south of the airport.
* The total length of the 2007 event is 1,572.33km, including 334.44km divided into 21 stages (10 different ).
* The time difference between Greece (GMT+ 3) and continental Europe is one hour, to be subtracted from Greek time to obtain continental European time. The currency is the euro.
* Recce is scheduled for Tuesday May 29 (between 07.00 and 19.00 stages SS1/17/23, 2/6, 3/7, 18/21, 19/22 and 5/13) and Wednesday May 30 (between 07.00 and 19.00 stages 4/8, 10/14, 11/15 and 12/16). Two runs are authorised at a maximum speed of 80kph.
* The rally starts on Thursday evening at 18.50. The finish ceremony takes place on Sunday afternoon from 15.15 at the Equestrian Centre.
* Shakedown takes place from 08.00 until 12.15 on Thursday May 31. The 2.51km test stage is 9.34km from the service park.
* Engines: Dani Sordo will use the same engine he had in Portugal and Sardinia. His chassis to , which this engine is sealed, is similar to the chassis seen in Italy. Following his retirement in Sardinia, Sebastien Loeb will have a new engine and chassis.
* Two gearboxes are available per car for the rally. In Dani's case, they are the gearboxes used in Sardinia, while Sebastien will start the event with new gearboxes.
* Tyres the quota per driver is 65 tyres, of which 45 may be used (event + shakedown). Barcode lists and the two pattern choices were nominated on Thursday May 24.