Peugeot Sport's asphalt ace will be back in action as the WRC heads to the mountains of the Italian Riviera, a region the Frenchman knows particularly well for having won the Sanremo Rally for the past three years. Once again, he is raring to go,...
Peugeot Sport's asphalt ace will be back in action as the WRC heads to the mountains of the Italian Riviera, a region the Frenchman knows particularly well for having won the Sanremo Rally for the past three years. Once again, he is raring to go, his sights set very much on victory...
Q: What is likely to be the biggest challenge of this year's Sanremo Rally?
Gilles Panizzi: "To my mind, the main challenge is a function of the period of the year at which it takes place, that is to say early October. It's a time when violent storms can break, making the roads treacherously slippery after months without rain. And if ever the wind blows a carpet of leaves onto the stages, they promise to be as slippery as a skating rink. To cap it all, there is also the possibility of fog! Also, since much of the route takes you through woodland, you have to be just as much on your guard in mild conditions too because of the possibility of lingering damp or wet patches in the shade. Experience of the event helps give you a feeling for the terrain however, and that's an undeniable asset, especially as far as tyre choice is concerned. That said, the weather is sometimes so fickle that nobody is immune from being caught out …"
Q: The Italian round is followed by two other asphalt rallies in quick succession: Corsica and Catalonia. In what ways are they different?
Panizzi: "The profile and the stages of the first two events are in fact quite similar, although the Sanremo is slightly twistier than the Tour of Corsica which is faster than many people think, probably because of its longstanding tag as the "Rally of the 1,000 Corners". But the surface offers good grip in most places so you can get up quite a lot of speed. The Spanish stages are fairly different though. The surface is more recent and smoother, with a finer grain. Grip is excellent in the dry, but aquaplaning is a potential problem in the wet. That said, there isn't a world of difference between the three events. To my mind, a car that is competitive in Italy will also be strong on the other two rounds."
Q: How do you explain your special skill on asphalt?
Panizzi: "The Scandinavians spend six months of the year on ice and the rest of the time on gravel. As for me, I learnt to drive on the asphalt roads of south-east France before going on to discover the meaning of close competition thanks to Peugeot's one-make championships in which the level is always very strong. After that, I was fortunate enough to obtain a works drive with the 306 Maxi at a time when the French Championship, which was all-asphalt, was still Peugeot's priority. To beat the other manufacturers involved, who also had strong cars, we had an operational set up that wouldn't have been out of place in the World Championship, as well as significant technological resources. The progress I made on the technical front and the experience I obtained of competing on a regular basis at such a competitive level was very useful. The story of my adventure at world level with the 206 WRC is much better known…"
Q: What do you see as the principal qualities of the 206 WRC on asphalt?
Panizzi: "Its size first of all. Once the engineers had succeeded in getting all the constituent parts that make up a WRC machine inside the car, they proceeded to develop effective solutions to tame its natural vivacity. Today, its agility and balance are fantastic. In these circumstances, its relatively small dimensions are an undeniable plus, but you do have to have a high quality team to get through all the initial work first. Some people suggest that the car has now reached the end of its life-span, but I still believe it's the car to beat on sealed surfaces. We will have a more precise picture very soon…"
Q: Physically, you've had something of a hard time this season. Have you now recovered completely?
Panizzi: "Absolutely. The virus I had during the Monte Carlo is behind me and my accident in Germany is forgotten. I don't suffer from the slightest after-effect. I'm working out as normal, there's nothing wrong with my physical shape and morally I'm 100%!"
Q: Peugeot has seen its cushion in the provisional Manufacturers' World Championship standings evaporate. Does that put extra pressure on your shoulders?
Panizzi: "No, because I am confident in the car's potential. We saw in Australia that the reliability bugs are now no more than a bad memory. On top of that, pre-event testing enabled us to identify and correct the technical trouble that caused a problem for me in Germany. I again feel totally at one with my 206 WRC and I'm ready for the battle. I will do everything in my power to repeat my wins of last year and to secure maximum points for Peugeot. We are about to start a mini-championship made up of four rallies and everyone is fully fired up to come out on top. For sure, our cousins, and notably Sébastien Loeb, look very strong, but we are ready for the showdown."
What is the reason for such confidence?
Panizzi: "On asphalt, I think people have known for some time what I can achieve. Experience has taught me to analyse the technical set-up of my car to make further improvements to its performance potential. My feeling with the 206 WRC and the conclusions my engineers and I have come to could end up weighing in the balance. It's such a pleasure to work with a team of such a high standard as Peugeot because we are close to perfection. Upstream of an event, testing can also give you a tremendous, near-magical kick when you feel you've established a solid base. It's like honing your knife before cutting into a juicy steak. That said, I don't under-estimate the competition. Far from it. I'm expecting a hotly contested end to the season. We have survived other fierce battles in the past and I tell myself that Peugeot has been at the summit for the past three years and has every intention of staying there."
Yet you will be moving on from Peugeot Sport next season. Is that not going to be a little sad?
Panizzi: "We'll see at the end of the year when I close the door of my 206 for the last time. For the moment, it's quite strange but I don't give it a minute's thought. I am still 100% with the Lions, both on the sporting front and sentimentally. I am a Peugeot driver and the page doesn't turn until the end of the season,.