A new challenge
The Rally of Monte Carlo, the championship's longest running event - almost three quarter of a century - usually kicks off the new season but also stands out as the event with news and changes. This year's edition sticks to its reputation. It is not far from truth to say that the `Monte 2006' might write a new page of the rally history.
The Kronos Racing Belgian team participates in the event with three Xsara WRCs. Two of these will be entered under the colours of the Kronos Total Citroën World Rally Team: one for two-times World Champions Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, and the other one for their Spanish team-mates Xavier Pons and Carlos Del Barrio.
Bearing number one and two on their doors, these Xsaras depend on a team registered in the `Manufacturers one' category, and comply with the 2006 technical definition. The most known measures of these new regulations are the prohibition of the electronic front and rear differentials and an increased restriction of the spare parts changes.
After dominating in 2002, and winning three times consecutively in Monaco, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena cannot escape the fact they will play the role of favourites for another victory. No matter how confident they can be, they remain very cautious. Seb does not ignore that the changes in the other teams' line-up - and how they will adapt to the new regulations - raise many questions. In any case, some of the answers will be given by the first stage times.
Daniel Elena has carefully studied the rally route. The Monaco-born co-driver underlines its difficulty: "With `classical' weather conditions, the snow can only be found at the highest points: in the `Couillole' pass and in the Turini. However, frost and patches of ice are guaranteed almost everywhere. The tyre choice for some groups of stages will be extremely tricky and decisive. In one word, I think it will be a very difficult event..." And also a huge job for the safety crews in charge of adding the traps in the pacenotes "when the grip changes as much as from Catalunya to Sweden..."
For his third participation in the rally, Xavier Pons aims to reach the finish, unlike in the previous years. He will benefit from his team-mate's experience, especially regarding the tyre choice.
Daniel Sordo - and his co-driver Marc Marti - begins behind the wheel of a World Rally Car in an event he discovered last year with a C2 Super 1600. Thanks to some Spanish supports, the reigning Junior World Champion has entered the third Xsara-Kronos under his own name. This private entry allows him to drive a car following the 2005 technical regulations with which the front and rear electronic differentials can be used.
A victory in Monte Carlo more than everywhere else, always rewards the whole team and is the result of what Colin McRae always called a "big team effort". A good analyse of the weather forecasts, focused safety crews, and judicious tyre choices would definitely pay off. At the time of the season's kick off, Marc Van Dalen agrees with that: "Straight away, this rally will set up very high standards for Kronos. We will give our maximum to succeed..."
Questions to Marc Van Dalen, team principal...
You have entered the Kronos Total Citroën World Rally Team in the Manufacturers one category. Which are the terms of your agreement with Citroën Sport?
"The way it's working is easy. The `Manufacturers one' programme implies to use technically redefined Xsara WRCs according to the 2006 specifications. Citroën Sport is in charge of this part. Kronos Racing rents the cars, assemblies them following to the recommended technical definition, makes the entries and looks after the cars `on-event' thanks to the support of some new partners. As usual, Citroën Sport wants to give its customers the best chances and offers, together with the rent, a technical support. Sébastien Loeb has a contract with Kronos for this programme. He is also one of Citroën Sport's test drivers.
"If you want to be in the `Manufacturer 1' category, you must enter two identical cars. This was possible thanks to Xavier Pons who has decided to continue his progression in the WRC with our team..."
What about Daniel Sordo and your third Xsara?
"Dani knows our team really well as he won his `Junior' title with us last year. I'm very happy that he is making his first outing at the highest level with us too. Thanks to the help of his mentor Carlos Sainz, of the RACC Automovil Club and its sporting director Aman Barfull, but also thanks to different Spanish supports, he was able to rent us a Xsara WRC which he has entered himself. This allows him to use a 2005 car with active front and rear differentials."
Ten years after Kronos Racing was created, is this season a real achievement?
"It will only be the case if Sébastien and Daniel reach their target by keeping their Drivers' and Co- drivers' title, and if we can fight for the `Manufacturers' title. In 2005 Kronos Racing was the best private team. This year we are climbing one step higher. Since we knew that Seb' and Daniel will join us, our thirty-people-team based in Naninne Namur area in Belgium has worked harder than ever.
"Welcoming the World Champions in our team gives us an extra motivation. But we aren't going to Monaco for a Sunday morning drive! We know this round stands out as one of the toughest of Championship. On another hand, we're happy to start with a rally that Seb' and Daniel like and they have dominated for the past four years. This event, maybe more than another, can be won with a perfectly organised team. We will do our maximum to succeed in this very important first test."
...to Sébastien Loeb...
How did you prepare this new season?
"After clinching our second world title, Daniel and I received a lot of various requests...and it was of course really nice. But in this very busy period, we absolutely had to do two big test sessions. The previous years, during the Monte tests, we were just checking everything and fine-tuning the settings. This time, with the comeback of the mechanical front and rear diffs, we had a lot to do. We started from a basic definition and we worked mostly on the car's balance which is our priority
"It took a while. In tests now, we don't change the differentials' settings. We simply change it with a new one: either the rear diff itself, or if it's the front one, the gearbox in which it's located. In that case the car could be stopped for around an hour."
Are you satisfied with these tests?
"I didn't drive on snow. But I think we have found a very good compromise. We tested on three different possible types of terrain for the Monte Carlo: flat, bumpy, and dirty roads with damp or snowy corners. However, I didn't have to change my driving style: I can lead the Xsara with `passive differentials' exactly like I drove the 2005 version. The fact that we cannot modify the settings of the front and rear diffs, don't bother me as I almost ever used to do it before. Furthermore we can still play with the central differential's setting. We also had the opportunity to test the BFGoodrich tyres for dry and/or wet roads. I was pleased to see that we have what we need at disposal."
A running series of wins in Monaco and a new team: some continuity amongst the changes?
"We spoke quite a lot of series of wins last season and we have seen that they all come to an end one day. But we will try everything to get another win in Monte Carlo, which is an event I really enjoy. It's Daniel's home rally and the Kronos team is very motivated. We could judge of the quality of their work in 2005. I'm cautious but confident too. Defending my Drivers' title in a private team is a real challenge, a target I would love to achieve. Seeing C4 WRC growing and participate in its debuts is as exciting: the two coming years promise to be thrilling..."
... And to Xavier Pons
You have competed in the two past Monte Carlos. How did it go? Do you like this event?
"In 2004, I discovered the Monte in the Super 1600's category. In very difficult conditions, we went off the road and unfortunately we couldn't go any further. Last year was my first outing with a World Rally Car. There was a huge difference. I think we set some interesting times. Unfortunately, our engine broke two stages before the end of the event. This rally is very difficult but I enjoy it. You should remain calm and much focused due to all the traps you can encounter."
You have tried the 2006 version of the Xsara WRC. In which kind of road conditions? How are you feeling with the car?
"I recently tested the 2006 version of the car in the Alps. The tests track was very snowy and I never drove on such conditions with the Xsara. However the car seems very easy to drive. I think the 2006 version will be even more spectacular to watch and it will obtain excellent results, at least as good as the 2005 car. It's a very good car in which I feel very confident."
You and Sébastien Loeb are the nominated drivers to score points for the Manufacturers championship. Does it put extra pressure on you?
"It's a real honour to have Seb' as a team-mate. Without any doubts, I will learn a not by working with him. It boosts my motivation. For me, being nominated is a real challenge. As I did in the past I will carefully follow Marc Van Dalen's instructions. I want to work for the team and try to bring as many points as I can to the Kronos Total Citroën World Rally Team."