A `classic' for the finale... Still often called `RAC Rally' the legends are persistent Britain's FIA WRC round which has become Wales Rally GB, comes back to the traditional wintry date it had held since 1959. The rally fans can only be...
A `classic' for the finale...
Still often called `RAC Rally' the legends are persistent Britain's FIA WRC round which has become Wales Rally GB, comes back to the traditional wintry date it had held since 1959. The rally fans can only be delighted to experience again an event where the competitors drive through the stages with full beam on, and where the night, the fog, the rain and the mud sometimes even snow constitute a unique combination if not magical.
As for New Zealand, three-times World Champions* Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena are present in Wales solely to complete the reconnaissance. For the rally, the two Kronos Total Citroen's Xsara WRCs will be placed in the hands of Spanish team-mates Xevi Pons/Carlos Del Barrio and Dani Sordo/ Marc Marti.
Since the British round has been hosted by the home of Y Ddraig Goch, the celebrated red dragon that has proudly appeared on the flag of the Principality since the year 678, it is held entirely within a compact rectangle bordered by the Brecon Beacons National Park, and largely opened on the Bristol Channel over which fickle rain clouds often blow in.
The Welsh stages are rather fast. In 2003, the last time for a November edition, the average speed fluctuated in between 100 and 115 km/h. The stages are essentially located on opened roads by the Forestry Commission but two are situated in the training military camp of Sennybridge, on the wild Mynydd Epynt tableland. Generally speaking, the rally route uses bedrock tracks which, if the weather is dry, have a very abrasive surface. In case of rain, the fine gravel layer on top changes into mud as slippery as ice, while softer places become rutted.
Even more than usual on gravel, road conditions will depend on weather conditions, temperatures and quantity of rain falling down on the area. As a consequence, tyre choice will be as tricky as crucial and Citroen's knowledge in the event will of course preciously help Kronos. The Xsara WRC has shown a great performance on the past three editions of the rally. However, Citroen Sport's development team has taken profit from a test session in Great Britain to finetune its handling.
Xevi Pons, who feels fully at ease at the moment, can lean on his good knowledge of the Welsh stages he has successively tackled with a Production car (2003), with a super 1600 (2004) and with a Xsara WRC (2005). The Catalan driver wishes to finish an excellent second half of season in a nice way, by climbing on the podium which he has missed narrowly on the three last rounds.
The situation is slightly different for Dani Sordo who takes the start of a new event for the sixth consecutive time. The Junior World Rally Champion aims to complete a careful job in reconnaissance to be able to drive safely on the first passes through the stages, before increasing the pace on the second one. Even if it's not his number one priority, he also hopes to defend his fourth place in the `Drivers' championship...
* Subject to the publication of the results by the FIA.
Jean-Pierre Mondron and Marc Van Dalen, Kronos Racing...
Now that both the `Drivers' and `Manufacturers' titles are won, don't you fear less motivation in the team?
Jean-Pierre Mondron: "Not at all! Kronos and Citroen have an agreement for sixteen rounds. For us, such a commitment should be respected until the end. On top of that and unlike for the past two years, the `finale' takes place on a classic and very popular round. A special event which is a real challenge on its own, and makes that we want to prepare it as well as we can. During its first full season in the world series, Kronos has conquered one of the two titles and wants to finish on a positive note. We would like to show until the end that Citroen was right to entrust us to have Sebastien and Daniel in our team this year."
The target of the `Manufacturers' title, which has been added to your job list over the course of the year, hasn't been reached. Are you disappointed?
Marc Van Dalen: "A person involved in competition cannot be satisfied when he doesn't reach his goal. After that, you can think about what happened and that's always very valuable. In this championship, it is crucial that both cars finish every event. We failed doing this six times and haven't `capitalised' enough during Sebastien's domination period. His absence has for sure complicated the situation but it has also proved we did the right choice by entrusting Xevi and Carlos. Our two young Spanish drivers have done everything they could this year. We have fought until the end and I want to congratulate Malcolm Wilson. His team and his drivers are great winners..."
Which team orders will you give to your two crews for the season's finale?
Marc Van Dalen: "Like for New Zealand, they are free to fight until the end including one against the other but without making a silly mistake. In this event which should be very wintry and in consequence difficult, everyone has his own aim. Xevi has been finishing fourth on the last three events and wants to try to achieve his first podium result. Dani, on his side, wants to defend a fourth position in the Drivers' rankings which he would have dreamt of at the start of the year, especially on his very first in a World Rally Car. To help them, I hope that we would produce a faultless job, especially thanks to the help of our partner BFGoodrich. Just to finish well this fantastic season which has been Kronos' best one so far..."
... to Xevi Pons ...
You've competed three times in Wales. Once in November and twice in September. What do you think of the event's comeback to its original date?
"I like the RAC rally like everybody I think... It's true it's not an easy rally and especially when it takes place in November where water and mud are the rally's highlights. But there's something special in this event's route. Maybe the fact it's a traditional and classic round of the championship gives it a special thing and makes it's different from another one. I think its comeback to being the season's last event is a good idea. Even if the weather conditions will be more difficult, I feel really pleased to tackle the `real' Wales Rally GB which should be very different from the September version..."
You have finished the last three rounds at the foot of the podium. Do you think you can succeed to climb on it at the Wales Rally GB?
"When I start a rally, I don't think about the podium... Just to do my best. Our three last results prove that I have progressed. I finished three times in fourth but I'm really pleased with the NZ one. It was a new event for almost everybody and it showed that Carlos [Del Barrio] and I have done a good job during the recce. Except for the first two stages where we experienced some problems, our times were quite good. With two stage wins and three second fastest times, the result is positive. The most important remains in the fact that I feel I can still improve more and grow up. If we achieve a good performance in GB...good, but if not, we will think of Monte Carlo... Amongst the things I've learnt this year, is that I should take one event after the other..."
At the eve of the season's finale, which conclusion can you draw on 2006? Which are the highlights for you?
"It's an interesting question. This season is my career's most important one. I think there would a `before' and an `after' 2006. Let me explain: for the first time I was part of a team targeting a world title with Seb, the world champion, as team-mate, and Dani, my Spanish rival as the `Third Man'. Without having covered much kilometres of test, it was a difficult situation to handle. I feared not to be at the right level and I pressured myself a lot. After Germany and Finland, Marc [Van Dalen] and I have decided that I should take a break. These fifteen days have been the key for understanding everything and put back into the right order all the information I had gathered since the start of the year. From that moment, I realised I could fight with the best drivers. Honestly, with a car like the Citroen, everything is easier. After Turkey, Marc and Guy Frequelin gave me the opportunity to drive Seb's Xsara. They trusted me and at that time of the year, this responsibility pleased me... We knew the `Manufacturers' championship will be difficult to win but the aim for me was to set good results and search for any kind of improvement. With Citroen Sport's engineers and all the Kronos team it was impossible not to. In a word, this year I've learned an incredible amount of things at the personal and the technical level. And when I learn something I never forget it... I hope I can use all this new knowledge next year..."
...and to Dani Sordo.
In Perth after the finish, you showed your satisfaction regarding your Australian apprenticeship. What do you think about the Rally New Zealand then?
"I think the conclusions after NZ level those after Australia. I have built my experience up for next year and I understood important things on the event. I am very satisfied with the work done on the pacenotes, which is also a positive point for next season. On top of that, despite tricky and difficult weather conditions, I still managed to find the right feeling. A fifth position is a rather good result for a first participation, especially because it's not thanks to other competitors retiring, but to the times we posted. Lying in third after day one was simply great. The stages were new to everyone. From Saturday afternoon on, other drivers have competed there before and you realise that with only two recce passes, a rookie has a small disadvantage..."
In Wales, you will discover an eighth round this season, the sixth consecutive. What do you know of this event? In which spirit will you take the start?
"I think this final round will be difficult for the weather. It's Rally GB, isn't it? Usually, it features rain, mud and cold, I think. I will try to defend my fourth position in the Drivers' rankings, even if Manfred [Stohl] has shown a good speed and only lies one point behind me... However, if he did take it, it won't really matter. This year has been so useful for my experience, as it was my target number one. For Wales Rally GB, I will try to do a good job on the pacenotes and aim to finish the event to have a good knowledge of the stages. I realised how different it is in between a rally which I have already competed in and one completely new. For example, in Sardinia, where I participated in a S1600 last year, I sort of remembered if such corner had grip or if such place was slippery. With only one competitive pass, we have a very different feeling, really!"
Same question as your team-mate Xevi: what do you think of 2006? Which are your highlights?
"2006 has been a great year. I signed my first official contract. It was a dream and it came true. The season's first half has been fantastic for me, even if I was a bit lucky: the fact the tarmac rallies took place on that first part of the year did help me. After Finland, I was expecting harder times with all these events to learn. I am also very pleased of these past two years with Kronos, a very good team. They led me to the `Junior' title last year and supplied me with the best material this year in a very professional atmosphere. I was also very fortunate to partner Sebastien and Xevi this season. For my highlights, I would recall Cyprus for the reasons we know. I still can't explain myself that stupid mistake. I've never felt something like that before that disastrous Sunday. Also Finland has been a good lesson for me. There, I understood my mistake and the limit of the car and of my driving..."
-credit: kronos racing