The CitroÃ«n C4 WRC heads for the loose The early part of the 2007 WRC calendar featured three winter fixtures: the Monte Carlo Rally, which took place in mild conditions, the Swedish, which saw temperatures dip as low as -25Â°C,...
The Citroën C4 WRC heads for the loose
The early part of the 2007 WRC calendar featured three winter fixtures: the Monte Carlo Rally, which took place in mild conditions, the Swedish, which saw temperatures dip as low as -25°C, and newcomer Rally Norway, the second day of which was affected by a snowstorm. Now, turning their back on the cold and overcast skies of wintry Europe, everyone at Citroën Sport is looking forward to some warm sunshine in Mexico where two Citroën C4 WRCs have been entered for Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Martí.
Rally Mexico is also a relative newcomer to the series and this year is just the fourth time that the American event counts as a qualifying round, yet several of its characteristics have seen it swiftly emerge as a key encounter. To begin with, it is the first gravel rally of the season, which means that this year's event will mark the debut of the new Citroën C4 WRC on dirt, the most widely featured surface type of the championship.
Also, with a total route length of 850km, Rally Mexico offers one of the most compact formats of the sixteen-round calendar. Meanwhile, following the rather specialised nature of the three events contested to date, the trip across the Atlantic will perhaps provide a more accurate picture of the performance potential of the championship's different players. Some even go so far as to suggest that the series only really gets underway in León.
The stages themselves take crews to the mountains to the east and north-east of this bustling city. They are smooth and often very fast, a lthough the surface is often rougher second time through since the hard-packed base tends to cut up progressively with each passing car, causing ruts to form and buried stones to become exposed.
Another hallmark of the event is the altitude at which it takes place. The service park is situated at more than 1,800m, which is the lowest-lying part of the route. The middle part of the Ortega stage (SS2/5) takes crews as close to the clouds as they come in the course of the entire year, namely 2,700m. "At altitudes like this, atmospheric pressure is significantly lower and the rally cars' engines are consequently much less powerful than they are at sea level," points out technical manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "Mexico is also a fast rally which means the suspension needs to soak up a lot of energy. For Citroën, this event poses several questions because it is the first hot weather round for the C4, and its first gravel outing too. Our preparation for Mexico notably included a test programme in Spain."
As is the case with the majority of dirt rallies, running first on the road is a handicap, and the last time Sébastien and Daniel didn't have that honour was... in Mexico in 2006. Some will see that as a good omen since they went on to win that event and the three-time World Champions start will be out to repeat that result this time round. Meanwhile, Dani Sordo and Marc Martí will initially focus on restoring their confidence after their two delicate sorties on snow before upping the pace with a view to attempting to secure a strong finish in the Manufacturers' points. The festive atmosphere and the backing of the Spanish-speaking fans could well play in their favour.
Following its somewhat complicated first attempt at Rally Norway, Citroën Sport will be back on more familiar terrain in Mexico and Guy Fréquelin has set his team a clear objective: "As on every rally, we will be out to win. Following our disappointing trip to Norway, it is especially important to come away from Mexico with a top result in terms of the Manufacturers' championship. As he continues his apprenticeship, I am expecting Dani to build on his good performances on the loose last year and score some points for Citroën."
Three questions to....
After Citroën's difficult weekend in Norway, what do you see as the best approach to Rally Mexico? @"Is there a good or a bad approach to any rally? One thing is sure: everyone at Citroën Sport will be out to do their very best job, as they always do. That's how we approached Sweden and Norway but we weren't totally successful there. When your two drivers go off four times in two events; it's difficult to come away with a good result. But that's all behind us now. During our debrief meeting in Hamar, everyone in the team was looking forward to the next rounds, although we won't have any margin for error on the reliability front."
What will be your tactics in Mexico? @"It's not easy to talk in terms of tactics before the start. Everything will depend on how the event unfolds. As usual, Sébastien and Daniel will start with the objective of winning. The fact that they are not leading the Drivers' championship has at least one positive spin-off: they won't be running first on the road. And depending on the way the results go, that could continue to be the case for some events to come."
What are the key features of this rally? @"The high altitude is an important factor that has to be taken into account in León. Also, the stages are globally quite fast. They're not all that rough but even a small caution can become a big hazard at the high speeds the crews reach in places. We saw that with Sébastien's misadventure in 2004."
...to Sébastien Loeb...
What is your analysis of the three winter events? @"Regarding the team, first of all, it was like they hadn't been away for a year. It didn't take them long at all to find their marks again. In championship terms, the situation isn't ideal because we're not leading. But there were numerous positive points too. To begin with, the Citroën C4 WRC is clearly very competitive on asphalt. We then saw that it is also strong on snow and ice which is encouraging with regard to its potential on gravel. The basic package is good. We now need to keep up the work especially on the suspension in order to be competitive everywhere."
Is Rally Mexico an event you enjoy? @"Up until last year, I did enjoy it but it wasn't very successful for me. After winning it last year and I like it even more! The stages are globally fast and tough on tyres because the weather is often hot and the surface is quite hard-packed. But there are also some slower, sandier, technically demanding portions. The other big feature is the altitude which causes a big drop in engine power. The phenomenon is a bit surprising to begin with but everyone is in the same boat and you soon get used to it. The country itself is very different and there are more and more spectators every year."
Rally Mexico is the first gravel round of the year and you won't be first on the road on Day 1. What is your objective? @"It's effectively been some time since I last wasn't first on the road. It's a double-edged thing though because it also means we're not leading the championship. But that could play in our favour in Mexico. We will try to profit from the situation to achieve our goal which is to win."
...and to Dani Sordo
Looking back, how do you view your first outings as a works Citroën Sport driver? @"I was pleased with my performance on the Monte Carlo Rally which went well for Citroën and for me. It was the C4's debut, so that was important. Things were more difficult after that, both for me and the team as a whole. Competing against the snow specialists, I drew two blanks in Sweden and Norway. It didn't take me long to adapt to the C4 on asphalt but I still haven't found my marks with the car on ice. Bit by bit, I'm seeing the pressure that being a works driver brings. The atmosphere in the team is very good though and it's a real pleasure working with everyone at Citroën Sport. They are doing their utmost to ensure we have the very best chances, especially in the difficult moments."
What do you remember of your first participation in Rally Mexico last year? @"What surprised me the most about Mexico was the fall in engine power you get at altitude. I enjoyed the stages which are not too rough but can be very fast. Road order was important because of a thin top-coating of loose gravel that can make conditions very slippery. The second pass can be very different from the first because there's more grip. You also have to be very wary of the numerous high-speed dips in the road."
What sort of result are you looking to come away with? @"The actual position doesn't really matter; the important thing is to finish ahead of as many other drivers as possible! I will be under a little pressure to begin with, but that's part and parcel of my job as a driver and it's up to me to cope with that. A good time on Stage 1 would be the ideal way to kick off the weekend..."