Out to defend a crown... Victory with Philippe Bugalski and Jean-Paul Chiaroni on the 2001 Deutschland Rally, the year before the event's inclusion in the World Championship, began a sequence of wins for the CitroÃ«n Xsara in Germany which has...
Out to defend a crown...
Victory with Philippe Bugalski and Jean-Paul Chiaroni on the 2001 Deutschland Rally, the year before the event's inclusion in the World Championship, began a sequence of wins for the Citroën Xsara in Germany which has continued with three consecutive successes for Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
This year, the current Drivers' championship leaders will naturally be looking to extend this run on an event which gave them their maiden WRC victory three years ago. The second Citroën Sport-entered Xsara will be driven by François Duval, 2nd in Germany twelve months ago, and his co-driver Sven Smeets.
Although it has only counted towards the World Championship on three occasions, the Deutschland Rally has rapidly carved out a solid reputation. Based to the east of Trier and situated within striking distance of six European countries, it stands out as the most European of all the current world class rallies and visitors from Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland and France, as well as local fans and those from even farther afield help make this an extremely popular event with the spectators.
The German round also features a unique format of three distinct stage types, with tests that twist from one tight turn to the next up and down the steep vineyards that overlook the Mosel Valley, the smooth, fast Saarland stages and tank tracks lined by awesome 'hinkelstein' stones in the Baumholder military ranges, which themselves offer a patchwork of concrete, dirt and grass which has contributed to the event's reputation as the least asphalt of all asphalt rallies.
Last but not least, the Trier region is described by weather experts as 'dynamic'. The summer heat generates frequent storms, while the presence of highlands to the north (Eifel) and to the south-east (Hunsrück) forms a corridor along which the Mosel River flows and which tends to channel and speed up weather systems. Two years ago, one such passage was clocked at 90 kph! Rain can effectively move in with very little notice, drenching the stages in storms or randomly dampening portions of the route which then dry out very quickly once the clouds pass. Always delicate, tyre choices -- which in some cases are made up to three hours before the start of the final stage of a loop -- are particularly tough in these situations, making the Deutschland Rally a sort of summertime version of January's Monte Carlo...
Citroën has prepared for this encounter with its customary care which included four days of on-site testing in July during the week which followed Rally Argentina. Sébastien Loeb and François Duval took turns at the wheel for a programme of set-up fine-tuning and evaluation of the tyre solutions proposed by Michelin.
Thanks to this work, the Versailles-Satory based squad is ready to assume the role of favourite with which it has been tagged. Although everyone is aware that this is a challenging, indecisive event, their sights are firmly set on extending Citroën's winning run on German soil...
Questions to Guy Fréquelin...
At the end of Rally Finland, you seemed relieved, happy and pleased all at the same time...
"I was effectively relieved that this event, perhaps the most difficult of the season, had passed off well for us. Prior to the start, we had been hoping to figure up with the front-runners. But my fear in that case was that Seb might get drawn into the battle and that it might all end badly... At the same time, I was happy for the team which had been in a position to challenge for victory in an event which tends to be the exclusive hunting ground of the local drivers. I was also happy for Seb and Daniel who came out of this fierce duel more mature. And I was pleased because, even though we only scored nine points. Seb found himself up against a Marcus in exceptional form while nobody retired ahead of François. It would therefore have been difficult to do any better..."
Citroën hasn't been beaten in the Deutschland Rally since 2001 and is favourite again this time round...
"An unbeaten run gives you confidence. Our wins show that our analysis of the different challenges associated with this event -- which are atypical to say the least -- was well founded. There is no need to remind you of the strength of the combination of Loeb, Elena, the Xsara and Michelin, and our ranks also include François Duval who was Sébastien's most pressing challenger last year. Being favourite can also generate a certain type of pressure however, although less so for Seb than the pressure he was under in Finland. He has three wins on this event to his name and he will be looking to consolidate the lead he enjoys in the Drivers' championship. He knows what needs to be done and everyone is aware of his ability to manage such situations. I am confident on that front. Even so, this is one of the championship's most unpredictable rounds. It also marks the return to asphalt and we don't know how competitive our rivals will be on this type of surface. Then there's the potentially unsettled weather which can turn tyre choices into a lottery, and I'm not a big fan of games of chance..."
The situation is very close in the Manufacturers' standings. François Duval went well in Germany last year. Will you ask him to turn it up a notch?
"What I will ask him is easy to say but not so easy to do: to drive as quickly as possible but be sure of being at the finish. I want him to give all he can -- and he has the talent -- but to take as much care as possible not to go off. That will demand a different pace from the pace he adopted, at my request, in the last two events. He found the right pace in Germany last year. His confidence is now back. I expect a strong performance from him..."
...to Sébastien Loeb...
What will you remember of your performance in Finland?
"I will remember the satisfaction of at last having been in a position where I was battling for victory. The team provided us with the car we needed to take the fight to Marcus in his own back yard. Driving in Finland is such a pleasure. And when on top of that there's the added pleasure of being involved in a long, close fight, and when the end result is also positive for the championship, then you can be but happy. I will certainly remember this year's Rally Finland as a big occasion..."
How did testing for Germany go and how was it to drive the asphalt version of the Xsara again?
"I tested in the Mosel Valley vineyards and in the Saarland region. It only took a couple of hundred metres to get back into asphalt mode. I feel comfortable with the Xsara whatever the surface. The current asphalt spec car has obviously benefited from all the little improvements that have seen the car progress since the beginning of the season. We updated and fine-tuned the settings that will serve as our basic set-up for Germany. We made small, successive changes and also tested the different tyre solutions proposed by Michelin... I'm pleased with the result. The car is precise, efficient and easy to control..."
What value do you put on taking a fourth consecutive win in what could be described as your home event? Is the draw of winning worth all-out attack?
"Not at all, even if this is another run we are on! I obviously want to win, but that won't make me change my approach to the event. They say I'm favourite, but I still prefer to be very cautious! None of my previous wins here were easy. Every year I have had a fight on my hands all the way to the finish. And the weather has occasionally complicated things. 'Bosenberg' was very wet last year and it was a case of doing all you could just to keep the car on the road to complete the stage without damage. You risked going off every time you turned the steering wheel. I think they were the most difficult conditions I have ever come across... I therefore feel confident, but I'm also very wary!"
...and to François Duval.
As an ultra-fast rally, Finland puts the quality of the communication between co-drivers and drivers to a big test. Where do you stand on that front?
"Given the high average speeds, Sven was worried that he wouldn't be able to keep up. But he did, apart from a few places where I asked him to correct the notes for certain bends once we had passed them. That was important. To finish the process of getting my confidence back, we couldn't afford to make any mistakes. And we didn't, although it is a rally on which it is easy to get it wrong. I believe our partnership has come of age..."
Where does the Deutschland Rally figure on your list of personal favourites?
"It's not my favourite. I prefer Corsica as asphalt rallies go. I liked the Sanremo Rally a lot too. My favourite gravel rallies are events like Greece and Turkey. That said, I feel comfortable in Germany. The stages are a little bit like what I came across in Belgium when I started competing..."
What sort of result are you looking for in Germany?
"I would really like to finish on the podium. I did last year and that's a very nice recollection. Given the Xsara's potential, I think a podium is possible. A dry weekend would simplify things. When we did our Deutschland Rally testing, everything went very well but I didn't come across any rain. I therefore have very little experience of the car on wet asphalt. So if it does rain, I won't be as quick. I'm hoping for dry conditions... and a podium."