CitroÃ«n's 2004 swansong! For its swansong, the 2004 World Rally Championship travels to Western Australia and the pleasant city of Perth which is located on the banks of the... Swan River! With the Manufacturers' title sewn up since Corsica,...
Citroën's 2004 swansong!
For its swansong, the 2004 World Rally Championship travels to Western Australia and the pleasant city of Perth which is located on the banks of the... Swan River!
With the Manufacturers' title sewn up since Corsica, Citroën has despatched two Xsara WRCs to the southern hemisphere event for 2004 champions Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti. For Carlos, who announced his decision to retire at the end of the year, Rally Australia will be his 195th and final World Championship start.
Promoted to the rank of final round of the season and consequently organised 2½ months after its usual early-September slot, Rally Australia has innovated by setting up its single service park in Gloucester Park, Perth, which last year hosted the event's super-special, due to be run on no fewer than five occasions this time round! The route also exploits the opportunities offered by the RTFZ mini-service park system (remote tyre fitting zones) during each of the three legs to enable it, as in previous years, to visit the Stirling Reservoir and Dwellingup regions (Leg 1), the territory east of Perth near Mundaring (Legs 2 and 3) and finally the Sotico Complex (Leg 3).
Only one stage is new: 'Flynns' which was used in the opposite direction in 2001 and 2002. Meanwhile, in addition to those stages run either last year ('Stirling West', 'Helena South') or in previous years ('Atkins'), the organisers have mixed and matched portions of other tests which means that co-drivers face the complex task of re-organising numerous sections of existing notes to prepare for this year's recce. The 2004 version of 'Stirling Long', for example, comprises sixteen sections that are either new or were used in one direction or another in 2002!
The main characteristics of the Australian round are well documented: fast, narrow stages lined with trees that the cars brush past at high speed, not forgetting the celebrated top-coating of small, ball bearing-like, ochre-coloured stones that the first cars through tend to sweep aside for the benefit of competitors following further down the start order. Rain tends to cancel out the phenomenon by anchoring these marbles in the ground but adverse weather seems less likely this time round given the event's new early-summer date.
In 2002, after an on-site test session (the last opportunity to test outside of Europe before the regulations were modified), Sébastien Loeb took the start at the wheel of the re-built test car. The data acquired back then has since been complemented by the information brought back from the 2003 event which saw Sébastien lead for a long time before finishing 2nd, while Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz were 4th and 5th respectively. For its second outing in Australia, the Xsara had clearly evolved at least as much as its fastest rivals...
One year on, Citroën will obviously be able to call on the same basic set-up that proved so competitive last year with which it will combine the latest evolutions that have seen the Xsara progress since its last visit to Perth. As in Catalonia, the drivers will be free to adopt the pace they see fit and the wish of everyone at Versailles-Satory is to see the 2004 season end in a good fight and, if possible, win it!
Questions to Guy Fréquelin
Along with the frustration of Sébastien's retirement, you were moved by the tribute paid to Carlos Sainz in Catalonia ...
"I was effectively very moved and pleased that Carlos finished his home event on the podium after one of those fights to the very end of the final stage that have forged his reputation. Sébastien's retirement was frustrating but we have to put that behind us now and analyse the problem which is not the same as the one which stopped him in Mexico, even though their consequences were similar. After that, we will need to take the necessary steps to ensure it doesn't happen again. Although the statistics show that the Xsara is incontestably the most reliable car of the moment, we need to be more vigilant still on this point."
What are your car's strengths for an event such as Rally Australia on which the Xsara will be competing for only the third time?
"In addition to the data we have acquired, the team now has a little experience of the terrain itself. To be competitive, it is also important to keep to the lines brushed clear by preceding cars and both Seb and Carlos are perfectly up to that task. On top of that, we go to Perth with no pressure on our shoulders, although we will be looking to progress further still on the technical front to give our drivers the best chances of winning."
Do you think it is judicious to conclude the season so far from the European bases of all the teams entered in the championship?
"The Rally Australia organisers do a very good job. When the calendar was decided, they were doubtlessly hoping that, as in previous years, the fight for both titles would continue all the way to the final round which would in turn have encouraged the media to make the long trip out to Perth. I hope the organising team will forgive us for having sewn up the championship in Corsica. But when I think how nerve racking it would have been had it been necessary to play out both titles on such a specific and unpredictable rally as Australia, the very idea gives me the shivers..."
Questions to Sébastien Loeb
You had mitigated impressions after your first visit to Perth in 2002, but you came very close to winning the 2003 event...
"We went very well last year... to my great surprise! My memory of the previous year was a bit negative and I was a little concerned prior to the start, but then I was delighted to see how competitive we were. The technical team had turned the car into an awesome machine. This year, everybody is expecting everything to go well, including us. I just hope we don't have a bad surprise..."
What can you tell us about the Australian stages and the strengths they call for in a car?
"The rally is well organised and the stages are nice and challenging, although somewhat narrow in places. They are also covered by the region's famous marble-like stones. It's not really a surface I like since it forces you to keep to the lines made by other cars and you are penalised too much if you stray out of them. As a rule, I prefer gravel rallies where you can use the whole road, where you can choose your own lines. The set-up of the Xsara was perfect last year and I didn't touch it during the rally. The key is good grip; lateral grip, traction and braking. The car must have neutral handling. If it understeers or oversteers, it takes you out of the lines..."
How likely is a repeat of your duel with Petter Solberg in Australia in 2003? Will this be a chance for revenge?
"Not so fast! What happens one year doesn't necessarily mean it will happen again the next. We will be back on gravel, a surface on which Petter has been strong in recent months. Marcus Grönholm also led for five stages in 2003, while Markko Märtin will be looking to snatch 2nd place from Petter in the championship. In short, if Petter doesn't leave us standing as he did in Sardinia, I see it being more of a big scrum than a duel. And I naturally hope to be a part of it. In Catalonia, I was able to drive with a free mind and attack as I saw fit. That will again be the case in Perth and I intend to give it my best!"
Questions to Carlos Sainz
Were you expecting to be paid such a big tribute by the spectators in Catalonia? You say that to succeed in a rally you have to love it. Rally Australia is one you have never won. Does that mean you don't like it?
"Catalonia was very nice and a very emotional moment for us. I can't think of any better reward than the very warm welcome I was given by the spectators who were out in numbers throughout the weekend. Australia is a long way from home and certainly won't have the same flavour, but it will still be my final rally. OK, both titles have been decided but it is bound to be a special, perhaps even strange occasion...
I have come close to winning Rally Australia a number of times. True, it's not my favourite event as far as the stages go, but the people are so hospitable and the organisation is really very good. It's an event where you need to feel more confident than elsewhere. The stages are fast, narrow and the trees are very close. You need to be fired up 120%."
Everyone knows the famous marbles that are a feature of the Australian stages. What sort of set-up do you need for this event? Do you need to drive in a special way?
"You don't actually need a special set-up, just an ordinary gravel set-up. The only thing is that you perhaps need to re-cut the tyres a bit. It's not an advantage to be first on the road and you have to feel confident in your car. Driving-wise, it is important to keep it tidy and stay on the lines made by the first cars through..."
You will be fourth on the road on Day 1. What is the ideal position?
"The ideal road order position in Australia is fifteenth! The person who ends Friday in the lead will start in the best position the following day. For us, running fourth on Day 1 won't change much for us. It will help, for sure, but not that much, although rain could change things... What is sure is that more than ever I will be out to win!"