The Xsara in the land of rising sun Six months after Mexico, it's the turn of Japan to join the family of FIA World Rally Championship organising countries. SÃ©bastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti will be in the land of the...
The Xsara in the land of rising sun
Six months after Mexico, it's the turn of Japan to join the family of FIA World Rally Championship organising countries. Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti will be in the land of the rising sun with their respective Xsara WRCs to discover this event which is based in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands that make up the Japanese archipelago.
The presence of a WRC round in Japan is a long-awaited moment. A number of manufacturers from this major car-producing nation have either been involved, are currently involved or plan to be involved in world class rallying, and Citroën is delighted to have this opportunity to compete on their home ground. There is also the added pleasure and excitement of discovering a culture that continues to have a certain mystery for Westerners, even though some of its traditions are now well known across the world.
The history of the sport in the archipelago dates back to the Japanese Alpine Rally which was organised for the first time in 1959, and eighteen times in all. The Hokkaido Rally saw the light of day in 2001 with the ambition of one day gaining World Championship status, working its way up via the Asia-Pacific Championship towards which it has always counted. Last year, sensing that its inclusion in the WRC was imminent, Citroën sent Sébastien Loeb, Daniel Elena and engineer Didier Clément to take a look at the 2003 event.
Hokkaido is covered with conifer, ash and birch forests and the weather is generally rather wet in September, something which Seb, Daniel and Didier were able to experience at first hand. They also saw how narrow and fast the 2003 route was, although the stages have been modified to a large extent this time round. "From what they tell us, the going will also be sandy and could cut up," says Technical Manager Jean-Claude Vaucard. "As with all non-European events, pre-event testing on-site is not allowed. We will only have the two hours of shakedown to adjust the car's set-up to the terrain, presuming that the shakedown stage is representative of the rally. Add to that the weather factor and I think this could well be a tough rally."
Indeed, the newcomer promises to be a difficult event for all the teams who will have to adapt as quickly as possible, an exercise in which Citroën is generally quite strong. Combined with the Xsara's reliability, this should be a positive feature for Sébastien and Carlos, especially since their respective positions in the Drivers' championship - just like that of their team in the Manufacturers' standings - means that their tactical options should be quite flexible in Japan...
Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, Kinetic, OZ, AIS and Citroën Financement are Team Citroën-Total's partners in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Questions to Guy Fréquelin
What do you and your team know about Japan?
"To tell the truth, very little! Personally, I attended a meeting of the FIA Manufacturers' Commission that was held during the Tokyo Motorshow. Like all Westerners, I was impressed by the scale of the city, by its bustling activity and by the density of its traffic. It's more than just a foreign country. You are disorientated, including for simple thinks like getting from A to Z, or eating... It won't necessarily be the same picture in Hokkaido where the population is smaller and life is calmer. As far as the rally itself goes, we have the information Sébastien, Daniel and their engineer Didier Clément brought back with them from the recce of the 2003 event..."
What is your opinion of the event's inclusion in the WRC?
"Although its market share is small for the moment, Citroën is interested in this important automobile market and is delighted that there is a round in Japan. In the course of the championship, we travel to other events that are just as far away, that are difficult logistically and which are organised in countries where the car market is quite low in terms of volume. There is no denying the appeal and sporting value of Rally New Zealand. But Citroën's sales there are currently equivalent to those of a small dealer in France. Cyprus is a minuscule market. On the other hand, the championship includes countries like Spain, Great-Britain, Germany, and Japan, and we hope a World Championship round will one day be organised again in China..."
At Versailles-Satory, how do you prepare for an event about which you know so little?
"In addition to the information we have, we try to be imaginative and to explore as many scenarios as possible. This essentially means we will need a basic set-up that covers a range of situations, plus a number of different modifications that we can make quickly and which go in a variety of directions. We have tried to have a broad choice of possibilities at our disposal since it will be necessary to be very reactive. Not only during the shakedown - which will probably seem too short - but also during the early part of the event. Everyone is in pretty much the same situation, and the key to success could well be speed of reaction. The first team to find the best set-up will have the edge... The other factor which is part and parcel of a new event is reliability. You never know exactly what demands unfamiliar stages are going to make in this domain. So we will be extremely cautious, since our number one objective - the least ambitious option - is to get both cars to the finish!"
Questions to Sébastien Loeb
Looking back at your result in Germany to begin with, you must have been very happy...
"Absolutely! All wins are nice. But there was something special about this one. It's my third in a row in Germany and the conditions were particularly difficult. Our rivals - and it's only normal - hoped that we might make a mistake, but we didn't. Psychologically, that's important. The result has allowed us to pull further clear in the championship and we now have what I would say is a healthy lead. Lastly, as we did in Monte Carlo, Daniel Elena's home ground, we benefited from the support of thousands of spectators in Germany. We are really delighted to have lived up their expectations."
Tell us about Japan, and about your recce there last year...
"To begin with, I have to say that what we saw last year does not necessarily reflect what we will find this time round since lots of stages are new. What won't change is the scenery. The region isn't particularly hilly and the forest roads are rather narrow and fast, with plenty of 4th-gear corners and long straights. Last year, there was also a very slow, twisty part which should be dropped. The surface seems quite soft and is likely to rut, especially since it rained enormously during the 2003 event. The undulating scenery is not disorientating. It's more the day to day life - the road signs, what's on your plate - that is less familiar..."
What qualities does the Xsara need over this sort of terrain?
"The narrow stages mean we need a set-up that favours precision. Also, since there is so much to learn and given that we will inevitably be called upon to improvise at times, you want a car that is easy to drive and in which you feel confident. The stages aren't as smooth as in Finland, but they aren't particularly rough either, so they shouldn't demand too much of the car. However, there is quite a lot of surface gravel and dust that we will have to clear as 'road sweepers' on Day 1. The ground also promises to cut up with each car that passes, especially if it rains. We will have to adapt our set-up accordingly. My approach will be what it often is: to start at my own pace, see where we stand and then adjust my strategy if necessary..."
Questions to Carlos Sainz
What do you know of Japan? What do you think of the idea of going to another new event?
"To say that I know Japan would be a lie! I have only been to Tokyo a couple of times for promotional work when I used to drive for Japanese teams. It's an interesting country, and very different to Europe as far as traditions, lifestyle... and food are concerned! There's always something instructive, exciting even, when as a driver you discover a new event because it's a step into the unknown. The gravel stages are apparently very narrow but, apart from that, nobody really knows what to expect. The most important thing is the way the event is organised. Generally, organisers do all they can to ensure teams and crews are warmly welcomed. Knowing the Japanese mentality a little bit and their desire to do things well, I think we can expect a high standard."
You have often won new rallies. Is there a reason for this? Can you do in Japan what you have previously done in Indonesia, Cyprus and Turkey? You came close in Mexico...
"Don't expect an explanation. There isn't one! It's true, I like new rallies! Why? Simply because they are new for everyone and we start on an equal footing as far as stage knowledge is concerned! Frankly, there's no secret. In Obihiro, as usual, I will be out to do my best. But winning against the other leading drivers will not be easy..."
You are often asked at the moment about whether you will continue to drive next year. There's lots of speculation. Would you like to say something on this subject?
"The only thing I can say for the moment is that I haven't yet come to a decision. I need to talk about it with my 'employers' - Mr. Satinet and Guy Fréquelin - as well as with my family and my entourage... I also need to talk... with myself! I need to think hard about it... I think I will be in a position to say more at the end of September. With regards to who will replace me if I decide to stop, well that has nothing to do with me..."