WRC

Monte Carlo: Citroen preview

Citroën looking for a Monte Carlo hat-trick Citroën's association with the Monte Carlo Rally goes back a long way, but its most recent visits to the Principality have been particularly successful. After dominating in 2002, Sebastien Loeb,...

Citroën looking for a Monte Carlo hat-trick

Citroën's association with the Monte Carlo Rally goes back a long way, but its most recent visits to the Principality have been particularly successful. After dominating in 2002, Sebastien Loeb, Daniel Elena and the Xsara WRC won the event outright in 2003 and 2004. And who can forget the emphatic one-two-three triumph of Sebastien Loeb, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz in 2003? This time round, everybody in the French squad is ardently hoping to add a further success to this outstanding run.

At the same time, everyone at Versailles-Satory knows that the Monte is an especially tough rally. For not only does the world-famed classic kick off the new season but it also stands out as one of the year's most indecisive encounters.

This uncertainty stems from the fact that every year sees the FIA World Rally Championship start from a clean sheet. The relative strengths of the different teams committed to the series can at this stage be little more than mere supposition and other questions marks abound! Every one of the six manufacturers has used the winter to carefully hone its machines, while seven of the twelve nominated drivers are either new to the championship or have swapped teams. Meanwhile, two manufacturers have changed tyre partner.

Many of the uncertainties stem also from the knife-edge nature of the rally itself. "It's an event where you can change from Catalonia to Sweden levels of grip in an instant," is how Guy Frequelin sums up the challenge! True, the 2005 Monte is focused much further south than previously in order to remain within striking distance of the event's single service park located on the harbour front in Monaco. And while crews will climb as high as 1,604m when they pass the infamous Col de Turini, the route includes few north-facing slopes on which lingering patches of frost and/or ice are always potential hazards, especially when drivers have chosen dry weather tyres as the most competitive option overall!

Despite the fact that there seems to be little chance of encountering abundant snowfall during the rally, Citroën still took time to test on the white stuff prior to the event at the Col du Galibier. The team then switched to the Col de Perty and Roquesteron where they came across conditions much closer to those they are most likely to find on the day. As usual, the programme focused on putting the latest detail changes to the car through their paces, as well as testing and evaluating the known and new tyres developed for the Monte by the team's indefectible partner, Michelin.

These tests also enabled the team's new recruit Francois Duval to familiarise himself with the Xsara. Indeed, it didn't taken the talented young Belgian long to feel at home in his new car and, including testing for the Swedish Rally, he covered close to a thousand kilometres in total. Francois revels in difficult conditions and he therefore has a soft spot for the Monte, as illustrated by his remarkable run in 2004 when he was notably the only driver to match Sebastien's pace in the fog of SS8...

With a week to go, the prevailing mood at Versailles-Satory is calm, with a dash of uncertainty and a pinch of anticipation. Guy Frequelin's personal mood includes a large dose of guardedness, but that's hardly surprising for someone whose personal record as a driver includes no fewer than nine Monte Carlo starts!

Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, Kinetic, OZ, AIS and Citroën Financement are Team Citroën-Total's partners in the FIA World Rally Championship.

Questions to Guy Frequelin

How is your team at the moment?

"Fine, thanks! Everyone is of course aware of the decisions that were announced at the end of 2004. They have sunk in, but we don't intend mulling over them all season. We have much better things to be getting on with, beginning with the defence of our two world titles. The team knows nothing's going to be easy. But that, instead of getting us down, has simply added to our motivation. The guys want to show that the quality of their work has lost none of its polish and you can literally feel their will to get on with what they perceive as a stimulating challenge. We have no intention of giving anything away!"

What is your opinion concerning the modifications to the WRC regulations?

"The view of the manufacturers has been heard. That's one positive point. The dropping of the flexi-service system for mid-leg service halts means that the rhythm of the events will improve, and I clearly won't regret the stress of having to nominate tyres three minutes before checking into service. The other thing concerns the limiting of parts. The subject was debated and we have accepted the result. It will require reliability. Everyone knows that that's one of our strong points, but we are going to try to improve even further in this domain. Restrictive measures always have knock-on effects and, as long as we do not know what they are, and until we master them, we will continue to be a little on our guard because of the uncertainty and small risk involved."

As a former driver, what is your view of the route of the 2005 Monte Carlo?

"For practical reasons, we won't be going very far north. It's a pity that the northern stages where we were most likely to find snow don't figure on the programme. If the weather proves mild, that could make this year's Monte an all-out asphalt affair. But that could actually help us given the Xsara's potential on this type of surface. However, even this far south, the Monte Carlo will never be free of hazards. If it does turn out to be a principally clear asphalt rally, the fight will be very fierce so the drivers will come across any hazards there are at high speed... on dry weather tyres. The whole face of the rally could change in a fraction of a second. I always tend to be reserved prior to the start of events. In the case of the Monte Carlo, I am ten times more reserved... That said, we will of course do everything we can to win!"

Questions to Sebastien Loeb

How did the winter break go for you?

"December was a little crazy and just flashed past, what with testing and various other commitments. The flattering side of the latter is being reminded all the time that you are World Champion. I then enjoyed a fortnight off which I spent with friends and family, looking back at last year and looking forward to this season. Missing out so narrowly on the title in 2003 put a little pressure on me and winning the championship in 2004 took away much of that pressure. I feel liberated. Whatever happens now, I've achieved my goal and fulfilled every rally driver's dream. Some say that the first conquest is the most difficult. We'll see. What's certain is that I haven't yet had my fill; behind the wheel, I feel the same desire to win. I want this to be a fantastic season with Citroën..."

There's a possibility that you won't find much snow, if any, on this year's Monte Carlo Rally. What's your feeling about that?

"Even though its route is very compact, I would like it to be a real Monte. However, the route has been planned in such a way that the only chance of coming across snow will probably be over the Col de Turini. If it does prove to be predominantly asphalt, that won't necessarily go against me, but I will miss the fun and pleasure of driving the Xsara on snow. But I am also very aware that even if we don't get snow, we will inevitably find patches of frost and ice. And that's another ballgame, another style of driving altogether..."

You dominated the 2002 Monte, you won outright in 2003 and 2004 and this year you will have number 1 on your doors. There's little doubt, you start as favourite...

"The perfect target for my rivals too! I have to accept the role of favourite. There's even a nice side to it. I'm getting used to the pressure that goes with it, but I remain lucid. All good runs come to an end some time and I tell myself that this one will too. On the other hand, the complexity of the Monte Carlo is such that, more than anywhere else, winning is a team effort. And we have a strong team, made even stronger by its recent record on this event. So although I am totally aware that anything can happen, I feel confident. More confident than last year..."

Questions to Francois Duval

Talk us through your first contact with the Xsara WRC...

"I spent two days testing in December near Roquesteron and the Col St. Jean and it didn't take long for me to feel comfortable with the car which is predictable and nicely balanced. It doesn't pose any problems in particular. After testing in Sweden, I spent two more days in the French Alps, again near Roquesteron and at the Col de Perty, and they just confirmed my first impressions. After something like 1,000 km in the car, I can say I feel very much at home in the Xsara. I received a warm welcome from the team whose rigour and professionalism doesn't really surprise me. My co-driver Stephane competed with Citroën in 2000 and he had given me prior warning! Seb tested in Roquesteron during the day between my two days there, so I stayed on to watch and chat with him about set-up. We seem to be on a similar wavelength in that respect..."

What is your view of the Monte Carlo Rally?

"I don't know whether it's because of my experience on quad bikes or because of the roads on which I started competing in Belgium, but I enjoy difficult conditions like snow or ice... even on dry weather tyres. The Monte Carlo Rally is therefore an event I like. It's a pity we won't be going as far north as Gap where we would have been fairly sure of finding such conditions. That said, for my debut with Citroën, if this year's Monte proves more of an asphalt event - which is essentially less complex - then that it will simplify things, which won't be a bad thing either..."

What sort of result do you think you can achieve in Monaco? What would you be satisfied with?

"I am aiming for a podium finish and I will be happy if I achieve that. Over the full season, a good average finish will be between 2nd and 5th place. I will therefore be satisfied if I finish between these two places. If I finish any further back than that, then I admit I will be disappointed..."

Facts and figures:

* The total length of the 73rd running of the championship's longest running event is 1,360.13 km, including 353.07 km divided into 15 special stages (9 different).

* Sebastien Loeb has started the Monte Carlo Rally on four previous occasions: 2001 (Saxo Kit Car, 2nd Class A6), 2002 (Xsara WRC, 2nd), 2003 (Xsara WRC, 1st), 2004 (Xsara WRC, 1st).

* In addition, Sebastien's Monaco-born co-driver Daniel Elena also took part as a driver in 1997 and 1998.

* Francois Duval has started the Monte Carlo three times: 2002 (Ford Puma S1600, 1st Junior), 2003 (Ford Focus, 7th), and 2004 (Ford Focus, 3rd).

* Stephane Prevot's experience in the event goes back a long way: one participation with Francois Duval in 2003 (Ford Focus, 3rd), plus eight others alongside Bruno Thiry: 2002 (Peugeot 206, 11th), 2001 (Skoda Octavia, 8th), 2000 (Toyota Corolla, 5th), 1999 (Subaru Impreza, 5th), 1998 (Ford Escort WRC, 6th), 1995 (Ford Escort Cosworth, 5th), 1994 (Ford Escort Cosworth, 6th) and 1993 (Opel Astra GSi 16V, 8th).

* Citroën has won the Monte Carlo Rally four times: 1959 (Coltelloni/Alexandre/Desrosiers, ID19), 1966 (P. Toivonen/Mikkander, DS21), 2003 and 2004 (Loeb/Elena, Xsara WRC).

* A private Xsara WRC run by Kronos Racing has been entered by Team OMV for Austria's Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor.

* JWRC: two Kronos-run C2 Super 1600s will compete in the Junior World Championship. One will be driven by Colin McRae's protege Kris Meeke and his co-driver Chris Patterson, the other by Daniel Sordo who enjoys backing from the RACC and Carlos Sainz. Daniel will be paired with the experienced Marc Marti.

-citroen-

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team