Go, Greece Lightning!

The FIA World Rally Championship continues its long series of gravel rallies in Greece. Renowned for its unforgiving route, the Acropolis Rally has over the years become a long sprint for the leading contenders. Both previous winners of the event, the Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen crews will be looking to claim another victory for Citroën Total World Rally Team.

Included in the World Rally Championship calendar since it was created in 1973, the Acropolis Rally has moved with the times. Whereas back then the average speed of the winner didn’t top 70kph, it is now close to 90kph. Increasingly well prepared and able to withstand the demands of what remains an incredibly testing route, the crews and their cars eat up the ground at a cracking pace.

With this in mind, Friday’s leg represents a genuine test of the drivers’ valour. After leaving Loutraki at 6am sharp, the competitors will cover some 170km of stages, not returning to the service park until 9pm. Only two 15-minute remote service periods – during which the cars can only be repaired using the spare parts brought along – will be available to patch up the scars left by the Greek stages.

Sébastien Loeb, Citroën Total World Rally Team
Sébastien Loeb, Citroën Total World Rally Team

Photo by: Citroën Communication

World Championship leader with three wins obtained in Monte-Carlo, Mexico and Argentina, Sébastien Loeb has achieved two of his seventy career wins in Greece. After winning in the Xsara WRC (2005) and the C4 WRC (2008), the eight-time World Champion would like to complete the series with the DS3 WRC. “It’s a multi-faceted rally: some stages are on very smooth and quick roads. Others, however, are littered with rocks which are not kind to the suspension. Depending on the heat, tyre management can have a major impact on the outcome of the race,” warned Seb. “Often, the time set on a single stage isn’t that significant. You need to look at the result for the entire loop before starting to draw any conclusions. Obviously, I’ll be aiming to win. I had the potential to win in 2011 and I am determined to do so this year!”

Winner here in 2009, Mikko Hirvonen admits he has rather mixed feelings about this event: “It’s not my favourite rally, but I don’t hate it either. We are competing in a World Championship and we must therefore take part in rallies that are varied and representative of all types of surface. The Acropolis Rally is one of the major classics of the WRC and it has not lost its reputation for having the most difficult route. However, you have to say we are driving flat out pretty much the whole time! Obviously, we’ll need to look after the engine and gearbox and the tyres, but I think that a significant part of the outcome is determined during the pre-rally preparatory tests. During these test sessions, you need to make sure the car is sufficiently robust to handle the difficult conditions. As the Citroën DS3 WRCs managed a one-two finish last year, I’m not worried about our ability to challenge for the win.”

Currently third in the World Championship standings, behind Sébastien Loeb and Petter Solberg, Mikko is determined to show he is improving in the coming rounds: “Rally Argentina gave me the chance to take another step forward. I feel totally comfortable in the quick sections. We have done a lot of work with the team and we have made some changes which are more to my liking. I feel very confident about the rest of the season.”

Three Questions For… Yves Matton

The Citroën Total World Rally Team achieved a one-two in Argentina after you told Sébastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen to hold their positions. Wasn’t the gap between the two drivers too narrow to do that?

Second place Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, Citroën DS3 WRC, Citroën Total World Rally Team
Second place Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, Citroën DS3 WRC, Citroën Total World Rally Team

Photo by: Citroën Communication

“This kind of decision is never easy to take, but we had to take action to ensure that we achieved the goals that we had set for ourselves, namely to keep the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World titles. After drawing a blank in Portugal, Rally Argentina worked out well for us. Given the lead that our crew had established and the difficulties that still lay ahead, the sensible choice was clearly to ask Seb and Mikko to hold position. Every member of the team, starting with the drivers, knows how important for Citroën to win this titles. Clearly, it may seem particularly tough on Mikko after the way Rally de Portugal ended, but I hope that we’ll see him win his first rally with us in the very near future.”

How would you say the first five rallies of the 2012 season have gone for you?

“The most important point is obviously to lead the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World Championship standings. I don’t think, however, that we can come to any definitive conclusions at this stage of the season. After Monte-Carlo, Sweden and Mexico, we thought that in Portugal we would get a clearer idea of the pecking order between the leading contenders in the Championship. The weather prevented us from seeing a proper contest. In Argentina, our rivals had problems just when our crews began to hit top form. In the end, we still haven’t seen a genuine scrap on a level playing field. I think that we undoubtedly have some stiff competition and I’m certain that we are going to see some very hotly contested rallies in the next few rounds. Although we have established a lead in terms of points, this championship is far from over!”

The way that the WRC is managed has undergone significant changes in recent months. What is your view of the current situation?

“When I was appointed Citroën Racing Team Principal in January of this year, the WRC found itself without a promoter at the same time. The FIA and the organisers of the first few rounds have fulfilled their role to make sure that the rallies have been held in best possible conditions. In comparison with my previous experience of WRC, I am pleased with the working relations between the manufacturers and the FIA. The team led by Michèle Mouton, Jarmo Mähönen and Alexandre Gueschir listens to our concerns. Each side understands the constraints and aspirations of the other stakeholders and we are moving forward in the right direction. The future of our sport will depend both on the heritage of the World Rally Championship and our capacity to move forward with the new technologies both in communications and automotive industry.”