Ten days after the traumatic events of Wales Rally GB, the World Championship fraternity heads east into the rising sun for Rally Japan, an event that counted towards the series for the first time last year. Citroen has entered two Xsara WRCs for...
Ten days after the traumatic events of Wales Rally GB, the World Championship fraternity heads east into the rising sun for Rally Japan, an event that counted towards the series for the first time last year. Citroen has entered two Xsara WRCs for its usual crews Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Francois Duval/Sven Smeets.
Clear leaders in the Drivers' championship with a cushion of 34 points over their closest rivals, defending champions Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena have a chance to clinch their second consecutive title in Japan. For that, all they need is to obtain six points, the equivalent of finishing in 3rd place.
Yokoso! Welcome to Hokkaido! The Japanese WRC round effectively takes place on the country's northernmost island and is based in the relatively new city of Obihiro which lies at the heart of the vast agricultural Tokachi Plain. The city features a grid-pattern street layout and is situated some 50 to 100km south of the forested hills which host the event's gravel stages and this relatively big distance necessitates long road sections between the service park and the competitive action's epicentre. Day 1 features an extremely long stage (more than 50 km) which has been obtained by grafting two of 2004's tests end to end. Meanwhile, to break up the long trip out to and from Leg 2's stages, the organisers have introduced a number of new, short stages along the way. Finally, Day 3's stages are all repeats of tests run last year.
Ask the drivers what they think of the Japanese stages and they will tell you they are fast and narrow, an impression reinforced by the presence of tall grass either side which conceals the apexes of a good many corners. As far as the surface goes, last year's visit revealed that what seemed to be dry stages could easily turn slippery after the passage of just a few cars through the combined effect of their cutting through the topmost crust and dragging dirt onto the road from the inside of corners.
In addition to the relative lack of knowledge of the stages, the weather is another major unknown. September is traditionally marked by heavy rain on the island of Hokkaido and the weather was effectively wet just prior to last year's rally, although the 2004 event took place a month earlier. A big question mark hangs over what the weather will be during the 2005 rally's late-September/early-October slot which basically corresponds with the beginning of autumn.
"As far as set-up goes, we tend to compare Rally Japan with Wales Rally GB," explains the team's Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "In fact, it's in Wales that we prepared the spectrum of settings for Japan as well as testing the different products developed by Michelin."
In 2004, Seb and Daniel were in contention for victory until middle of Leg 2 when they chose to settle for 2nd place and 8 points. Francois Duval posted a fastest stage time and figured in 6th before retiring on Sunday morning. These results, combined with the progress achieved by the Xsara WRC and the 'plus' represented by Michelin's Z BTO tyre permit Citroen to nourish high hopes for 2005's visit to Japan.
Questions to Guy Frequelin.
You saw the Japanese stages at first hand in 2004. What was your opinion of them?
"My picture last year was very incomplete. I didn't see all the stages and, with the experience of just one to go by, there are still a lot of unknowns. If I had to describe the region, I would compare it to parts of the Vosges Mountains in France, but 10C warmer. The countryside is quite rolling, with forest tracks and lush vegetation. The surface of certain stages is covered in sizeable gravel, small pebbles almost. The roads themselves are fast, often narrow and therefore difficult. This is a complex rally."
In what ways is it complex?
"The distance between the service park and the stages means you have to choose your tyres well before the stages are due to start. For example, on Day 1, the start of both the morning and afternoon attempts at the long 50km stage takes place three hours after the cars leave service. In a region where we are not at all familiar with the weather - which can be particularly unsettled at this time of year - we potentially face some tough tyre choices. A clear-cut, rational choice can prove totally unsuited if the weather suddenly switches. As I have already said regarding the Deutschland Rally, this lottery aspect is something I don't like. One last point, with the experience of just one year behind us, reliability will be important for this event which we are less familiar with than any other. We will do our best to be impeccable on that front."
What instructions will you give your crews?
"Given all the unknowns concerning this rally - the terrain, the weather. - and also given the psychological state of mind in which many people involved with the WRC will be in Japan, I simply want them to stay on the road and finish."
To Sebastien Loeb.
What do you remember of the 2004 Rally Japan?
"I remember the stages being fast. The surface is a little like Rally GB. although, I am tempted to add, drier. Having said that, this year's Rally GB was in fact quite dry. Another difference is that the Japanese stages are globally narrower than those in the Welsh forests, and we don't have a clear line of sight because of the tall grass that grows either side of the road. This caused problems for some crews with their pacenotes, at least that's what I understand from the different conversations we have had between ourselves. Cutting corners can be a bit risky too since the tall grass can conceal a ditch. or something hard. Just two passes during recce isn't enough to be 100% sure. That said, this problem will hopefully only affect us on Day 1. After that, if all goes well, there will be other competitors running ahead of us on the road."
How suited was your Xsara to the Japanese stages last year and what sort of car does this rally call for?
"We went quite well last year. We won six stages and we were on the pace fighting for victory until the Saturday morning. We had expected the stages of the first loop of Day 2 to be drier and we chose our tyres accordingly. However, they turned out to be a little too hard for the greasy conditions we actually found. After that, we changed tactics. I remember though that my Xsara was precise, which is crucial on narrow stages with little visibility, and that traction was good. There is no reason why the car shouldn't be just as competitive this year. It has even improved. And Michelin's Z BTO tyres haven't let us down yet. They have represented a step forward whatever the terrain."
How will you approach the rally?
"My priority will be the championship. Rally Japan is not one of the events I want to win the most. That said, I won't surprise anybody if I say that I will start at a pace at which I feel comfortable. In Wales, I felt extremely confident with the car. I obviously took some risks but I don't believe they were unconsidered risks. If I feel just as confident in Obihiro, and if my natural pace enables me to challenge for victory, then I will go for it. If I see that keeping up with the leader - or leaders - means that I have to take excessive risks, then I will concentrate on the championship and try to wrap it up in Japan. It will be nice to be able to go to Corsica with a free mind. The Tour of Corsica is one of the rallies I really do want to win!"
And to Francois Duval.
What were your impressions last year of the region where Rally Japan is held?
"It wasn't love at first sight. I don't like grid-pattern cities with all those parallel and perpendicular streets. Like everyone else, I found it difficult in the ten days we were there to get to known and understand the people and to order food and drink. It was really very different. But that's what memories are made of."
How did the rally go for you last year?
"It started in difficult circumstances when my co-driver Stephane [Prevot] was forced to go back to Belgium just prior to the start following the death of his father. Finding a replacement locally was impossible and, in the end, Philippe Droeven bravely accepted to step in at the last minute. He arrived just before the start, totally jetlagged and without sleep. It was a tough event for him and, as a consequence, for both of us. That said, we were always in the top-seven stage times and we were 6th overall when he miscalled a pacenote. We slid down a bank and couldn't get back on the road. We were competitive, but we didn't have a result to show for it."
What do you think of the Japanese stages and what sort of position do you think you can achieve this year?
"The stages are very narrow, and the grass that masks the corners makes it very difficult to read the road. The only way to anticipate what's coming next is to drive 100% to your pacenotes. Judging by what we achieved last year in the circumstances I have just described, and also going by my recent performance with Sven on Rally GB where we set some excellent stage times without making any mistakes, I feel quite optimistic. My confidence is back and Sven and I now function perfectly together, so I think we should be able to meet the objective set by Citroen for Rally Japan."