Q: After a flying start to the season, your team was down on luck in Mexico before treading water in New Zealand. A quarter of the way into the season, what is your analysis of the year so far? Guy Frequelin: "It's not easy today to produce an...
After a flying start to the season, your team was down on luck in Mexico before treading water in New Zealand. A quarter of the way into the season, what is your analysis of the year so far?
"It's not easy today to produce an accurate pecking order. Three of the four rallies run to date were very specific, while Mexico was new to everyone. That said, we have seen that two of our rivals have progressed. I hope we have improved at the same rate, even though that wasn't particularly evident in New Zealand where we were forced to do the chasing because the car's set-up wasn't competitive from the start. What I can say however is that there has been no easing up on our side after our two early wins. On the contrary, we have a tremendous desire to do well and to progress quickly that we have to channel effectively while taking care in our validation of new solutions, which is no simple matter when it isn't possible to test on site. The second quarter of the season features three rounds that are fairly similar in style: Cyprus, Greece and Turkey. We have yet to compete on this type of terrain which demands other strong points."
Those strengths include reliability, which Citroen traditionally has. But at a time when the way rallying is evolving is pushing all the teams to work in this direction, is the Xsara good enough yet?
"We will soon find out. The next three rallies are the roughest of the season and therefore represent a big test of reliability. I hope the Xsara will be as strong in this domain as the level we got it to last year. But while you need reliability to score points, it isn't sufficient in itself to win outright, as we saw in Cyprus in 2003. We have also had to progress in terms of performance over this extremely slow terrain, on which we are not allowed to test. We did our pre-event work in Greece, and Carlos, who isn't easily satisfied, was particularly pleased with the work accomplished. I hope the way the rally unfolds reflects that optimism!"
Reliability, enhanced performance -- what objectives have you set for the team?
"As I've already said before, I would like to see both cars finish every rally inside the top-five, with one on the podium. This clinical approach is practically dictated by the current points scoring system in the Manufacturers' and Drivers' championships. If you want me to make a prediction for the Cyprus Rally, it is necessary to take into account the fact that this will only be our second attempt at what is a very specific rally. It would be unrealistic to say that we are going to Limassol to win. I am counting on our enhanced performance to be up there with the leading group. And if we succeed in that, and if an opportunity arises, I know that Sebastien and Carlos will snap it up to Sebastien Loeb.
What does it take to have a competitive car in Cyprus?
"First of all it has to be strong. The stones hit hard! In addition to reliability, you also need good shockabsorbing performance. There are ruts, potholes and rocks everywhere. It is vital that the suspension is able to soak up all these knocks vertically. The stages are also very twisty, so the car needs to be agile. Understeer is out of the question. But you have to be careful not to go too far the other way and end up with too much oversteer; that will only take you into the deeper gravel that has been swept to the sides of the road. You have to be able to re-accelerate with the car straight and to stay on the clear line. That was our objective when establishing the Xsara's set-up for Cyprus. Carlos worked in one direction which seemed effective, I worked in another. And we pooled our findings.
This time last year you were wondering what driving style you should adopt on this sort of terrain. What do you say now?
"At the start of last year's rally, I decided to slide as little as possible, to keep it clean ... and I was so clean that I wasn't quick. I was holding myself back too much. So I changed my approach, although still trying to avoid long, time-consuming slides. That said, you also have to drive as a function of the way your car handles. The Xsara's tendency to oversteer last year has now been erased. It is much easier to keep on the clear line and therefore maximise traction."
Talking of clear lines, you will only have Markko Martin running ahead of you on the first day in Cyprus. Like him, you will be sweeping the gravel clear for those running further down the order.
"True, but I will be a little less affected than him and marginally more affected than Marcus. Of the four championship leaders, Petter will be in the best position, but I don't think the advantage will be that big. The drivers further down the order should be the best off. If they are, that will be good for Carlos, and therefore for Citroen. And in any case, there are two other legs. The Xsara has improved a great deal and I hope it will allow me to run inside the top-three. My aim is a place on the podium. I succeeded last year, but that was down to the car's reliability. This time round, I hope that its performance will prove the decisive factor!"
Cyprus is a twisty, rough and very slow rally that takes place in searing heat. Do you enjoy this sort of event?
"I do. I like conditions like that. Cyprus marks the start of the toughest phase of the championship. It's here that the Xsara's robustness will make a difference and demonstrate its full potential."
You are generally quick on this type of rally. Why do you think that is?
"Success depends in fact on the feeling you have with the car. I have always tended to be competitive in Cyprus. That wasn't the case last year, simply because I wasn't one hundred per cent confident."
You seem very pleased with the way pre-Cyprus testing went. What result are you aiming for?
"Our testing during the last week of April was aimed at understanding the direction in which we needed to work after New Zealand, as well as establishing set-ups for the next four rallies. OK, it won't be so hot in Argentina as it promises to be in Cyprus or Greece, but the stages there are still quite similar. I was effectively pleased with the way testing went. I think we did a good job and I believe we will be competitive. As always, my aim will be to win, or at least finish on the podium."