As fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally New Zealand marks the final encounter of the first quarter of the 2005 series. For this event, organised 19,000 kilometres from its Versailles-Satory base, Team CitroÃ«n Total has entered...
As fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally New Zealand marks the final encounter of the first quarter of the 2005 series. For this event, organised 19,000 kilometres from its Versailles-Satory base, Team Citroën Total has entered two Xsara WRCs, one for defending champions Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and the other for their team-mates François Duval/Stéphane Prévot.
This year's visit is the French squad's third trip to New Zealand following consecutive 4th-place finishes with Sébastien Loeb in 2003 and 2004. The team has slowly but surely built up its understanding of this event's specific stages which WRC regulars come across just once a year.
The island's gravel roads, which hug the gently rolling countryside, are for the most part wide and very smooth. In addition to being extremely popular with the competitors, they tend to spare the mechanicals and, as it was once put in the past, "the only limiting factor here is driver skill!"
The picture is not quite so simple however seen through the eyes of a technician. "Let's take the different parameters one by one," suggests Citroën Sport's Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "There's the notion of grip which is dependent on the amount of loose gravel there is on the surface, how much of this top coating has been swept aside, how damp it is, etc. There's also the nature of the roads themselves which are essentially a succession of corners which flow into each other. You also need to take into account the cambered profile of the stages; when the road turns from one direction to the other, this camber forms a sort of crest that the cars have to cross. All these subtle considerations have to be taken into account when looking for the most competitive set-up…"
This indeed was the mission of the technical team during its pre-New Zealand testing which took place near Manresa, in Spain, and in Sardinia. As usual, part of the programme during these sessions was given over to testing the products developed by the team's tyre partner Michelin.
After the early part of the season which has poorly rewarded the runs of the Xsara and its two crews, Team Citroën Total turns its attention to this challenging fixture where its colours have yet to shine. However, the combination of the frustration felt to date and everyone's will to succeed serves as a strong stimulant and, to mark the completion of the first quarter of the 2005 championship, the whole team dreams of scoring a top result under the stars of the Southern Cross!
Questions to Guy Fréquelin…
For its third visit to New Zealand, the team is in a less favourable position in the Manufacturers' standings than it has been in previous years…
"We are currently 5th, fifteen points behind the leader. They are the cold statistics, but it's a perfectly logical situation given the points-scoring system employed in the championship. You are bound to find yourself in a dangerous position when only one of your cars reaches the finish three times in a row. That's something we hadn't experienced since joining the championship full time. We have tried to calmly analyse our difficult start to the season with a view to understanding what happened. Given the differing nature of the incidents that have affected us, it could be tempting to pin it all on bad luck, but I am always wary of that approach. It can often be a bit of an easy way of absolving yourself…"
Until now, reliability has always been one of the Citroën team's hallmarks. Do you think the first three events of 2005 mark a watershed in this domain?
"Not at all. We didn't suffer any reliability-related problems in Monte Carlo, while in Sweden we were perhaps the first to pay the price of the new ruling that the same engine must cover two rallies. As far as Mexico is concerned, we have no logical explanation for why Seb's shock absorber mounting cracked. And when we replaced the radiator in François' car, the new part proved defective immediately. Reliability is a state of mind and a product of the way you work. On both these fronts, the team has maintained its customary standards. We are currently looking at reinforcing our component validation process..."
Are you pleased with your preparation for Rally New Zealand? And the usual question: what objective have you set the team?
"Every year, given that on-site testing is not allowed, we have to prepare for New Zealand from a distance which means there can be a significant difference between the terrain we test on and the stages themselves which are unique. That said, we now have a fairly precise idea of what is required to make the Xsara competitive on this event. We have incontestably made a big step forward. We will now have to see how our work compares with the progress made by our rivals. As far as the result we are aiming for is concerned, we need to finish in exactly the same positions we were holding during the first three events of the season before being affected by a variety of incidents; that is to say one car on the podium and the other inside the top-five…"
…to Sébastien Loeb…
The first three rounds of 2005 could have seen you finish on the podium each time, but it hasn't worked out that way. What is happening? What were the positive points of Mexico?
"I have the impression it's down to bad luck. The part that cracked in Mexico is a part we have used on numerous rallies, including on rough gravel. As far as outright performance goes, the picture is fairly satisfactory. In Sweden, I was able to match the pace of the leaders and my time on the first stage in Mexico was on a par with that of Petter [Solberg]. Our performance during the latter part of the event was the other positive side of Mexico. When Daniel and I crossed the finish line of the final stage and we were sure we had finished in 4th place, the joy we felt was comparable to that we usually feel when we win. We had come from such a long way back… I tell myself that the current run will come to an end. Our car has always been the most reliable of the pack and there is no reason why that should change…"
Are you still a big fan of Rally New Zealand, its stages, the country? What do you remember the most about last year's event?
"I am very fond of the countryside's wide open spaces, greenery and tranquillity. But there's no getting away from the fact that New Zealand is such a long way from home and I also recall last year's long road sections which were perhaps partly due to the 'Mille Pistes' recce system… The event's strong point is its stages, quite simply because stages like that don't exist anywhere else in the world. I love the fast flowing roads; there are hardly any straights and there is a nice rhythm to the way the corners flow into each other, especially with the celebrated camber changes. Setting the car up for the corners is a big pleasure but you still need to keep it tidy and not slide too much. There is also of course the famous top coating of loose gravel which can be a real handicap when you're amongst the first on the road…"
Indeed, this will be the first time you aren't first on the road on Day 1. Do you think that will help your chances? Is it possible to envisage victory?
"Envisaging victory is easy! However, it will effectively be a relief not to be first on the road. Last year, after serving as 'road sweeper' throughout the first loop of stages and dropping 44 seconds, I knew I wouldn't be able to win. The second loop was identical and I only dropped a further 4 seconds. After Sunday's first group of stages, I was still 47s behind the leader who was battling hard to defend first place. The moral of the story is that practically all that deficit was lost running first on the road on the Friday. That said, the terrain could be different this time round; it could rain, etc. But it will be nice if we are in a position where we are challenging for top spot in New Zealand which is one of the few events that has resisted the team so far…"
…and to François Duval…
This is your fourth visit to New Zealand. What do you think of the country and its stages?
"The first thing is that it takes place so far away. The trip out there is so long! Otherwise, I find there's a certain similarity between Auckland and Perth. The flowing corners of Rally New Zealand's stages themselves make the event technically challenging and we are less hemmed in than we are in the Australian forests, so you benefit from better visibility. In 2003, I found myself acting as road-sweeper on the second day after hitting problems on Day 1. That was tough and is not a good memory. It's better to run further back… Last year, I was on the pace of Seb and Carlos before being caught out by the Whaanga Coast stone which caused me to drop a big chunk of time…"
Your first three rallies with the Xsara have seen you involved in the thick of the fight for a place on the podium but you haven't yet been able to conclude. How do you feel about this difference between your potential in performance terms and the final result?
"There is effectively a big difference between the two. The main thing is to understand exactly what happened each time. Mulling over it afterwards serves no purpose at all. There is already sufficient pressure on us for us not to expose ourselves to more. Like the whole team, I was naturally disappointed by my technical problem in Mexico. However, looking back at the first three events of the year, which took place on very different types of surface, Stéphane and I were on a good pace each time. There is no reason why that shouldn't be the case over the other types of surface that make up the championship and that's very encouraging!"
What sort of result will you be aiming for in New Zealand?
"My prime objective will be to build on my experience which is very important over this event's difficult, technically demanding stages. I will be pleased if I finish in the top-five, and delighted if I make it onto the podium. Honestly though, I don't think it will be possible to win in normal circumstances!"