Citroen heads for the southern hemisphere This week sees World Rally Championship regulars make the long-haul trip to the other side of the planet for the eleventh round of the 2007 series, the Rally New Zealand. Citroen Sport has entered two C4...
Citroen heads for the southern hemisphere
This week sees World Rally Championship regulars make the long-haul trip to the other side of the planet for the eleventh round of the 2007 series, the Rally New Zealand. Citroen Sport has entered two C4 WRCs for the event, for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Marti.
For the second year running, it is the town of Hamilton, south of Auckland, that will play host to what stands out as one of the calendar's most popular fixtures. Drivers and co-drivers will have little time, however, to profit from the Waikato regional capital's magnificent gardens or visit the famous Waitomo Caves. For them, the principal draw of New Zealand is its network of gravel roads that make the country ideal rallying territory and which seem to have been tailor-made for the sport.
The event's three legs take crews successively to the Pirongia, Te Akau and Raglan regions, the latter of which features the celebrated Whaanga Coast stage which hugs the coastline of the Tasmanian Sea. The route takes in lush, green countryside and features some stunning backdrops to which the cars perform a spectacular ballet as they dance from one corner to the next. And with driver skill playing such a preponderant role here, it comes as no surprise to learn that this event is regularly cited amongst the competitors' favourites.
"The first time I came here, in 2002, I was instantly impressed not only by the country but also by the stages," recalls Sebastien Loeb. "They are fast and technically challenging, but not hard on the mechanicals. It didn't take me long to find my marks and it's one of the events I enjoy the most. Our New Zealand testing went very well. The C4 has already shown its potential on other types of terrain and we will do our best to fight for victory."
Meanwhile, this is only Dani Sordo's second visit to New Zealand, and the Spaniard unsurprisingly favours a different approach to that of his team-mate. "I clearly don't have the necessary hindsight to fully appreciate all the niceties of this event," he says. "I have fond memories of last year's rally but we still face a real challenge this time round. I intend to play it cautiously in order to get more kilometres under my belt and add to my experience here."
Sebastien and Daniel have set their sights a little higher: "The Rallye Deutschland showed that the Citroen C4 still appears to have the edge over its rivals on asphalt, and that could well play in our favour on the three sealed-surface rounds to come," suggests Seb. "Until then, however, it will be important to keep the pressure on Marcus Gronholm on the loose and do all we can to close the points gap. The excellent work put in by the team, the potential of our car and the excellent feeling I have on these stages should, I hope, help us."
With just days to go before the start of the Rugby World Cup, Citroen Sport travels out to the home of the All Blacks with the same determination and team spirit as New Zealand's legendary national rugby squad. "Our aim will be to build on our recent success in Germany with another top result," explains Guy Frequelin. "The Rally New Zealand is extremely varied and that's what makes it so interesting. Everyone at Citroen Sport team is looking to improve the C4's competitiveness on the loose and keen to put in a strong performance in Hamilton. Our objective is to win, but we must keep our feet on the ground because it won't be easy."
Citroen and Sebastien Loeb successfully kept up their unbeaten record in Germany and the C4 once again proved dominant on asphalt. Were you pleased with the result?
"The Rallye Deutschland is traditionally a very complex event and this year was no exception! The weather was as fickle as ever and the stages were very tricky. The team functioned well, the C4 lived up to its reputation on asphalt, our BFGoodrich tyres worked well and Sebastien and Daniel put in a top performance. It wasn't the easiest of rallies but we ended up coming away with a seventh consecutive win, and I was obviously very happy with that."
This year will only be Dani Sordo's second visit to New Zealand, while Sebastien Loeb missed the 2006 event...
"We knew when we recruited Dani that he wouldn't be in a position where he could fully exploit his talent because of his limited knowledge of the events. This is effectively only his second attempt at the Rally New Zealand and he doubtlessly still has plenty to discover. That said, in similar circumstances, he has shown that he is capable of adapting very quickly and he could well succeed in coming away with a good result. The new stages that were introduced in 2006 will probably pose a bit of a problem for Sebastien but his experience and talent should, I hope, enable him to overcome that obstacle."
The Citroen C4 has never competed in New Zealand before. What is your objective this weekend?
"To stay in the title chase, Sebastien and Daniel will need to try to finish ahead of Marcus Gronholm. The gravel rounds contested so far this year have shown that the C4 WRC is competitive on the loose so I hope we shall succeed in challenging for victory. I would like to see Dani and Marc build on the marked progress they have shown on recent events. At the same time, however, they also need to be looking to gain experience."
The Rallye Deutschland really does seem to be happy hunting ground for you...
"It's true that it's a special event for me. I have a good feeling there and we always have lots of supporters, so that doubtlessly adds to my motivation. Daniel and I scored our first WRC victory there in 2002 and this year was our sixth consecutive win on the event. I think that's a sign of our confidence at the moment. The final stage, which saw Marcus Gronholm make a mistake, enabled us to make up some of the gap in the championship standings and we are now just eight points behind. The Rallye Deutschland also showed how competitive the C4 is on asphalt."
Last year's Rally New Zealand featured quite a few new stages and you only did the recce for the event. Does that put you at a disadvantage?
"On paper, missing last year's event clearly doesn't play in our favour. For us, New Zealand promises to be the most complex of all the events still to come and, compared with those of our rivals who did it in 2006, we lack a little experience. Even so, I was very pleased with the notes we took last year and that's better than starting completely from scratch. We have a good base from which to work and that will reduce our handicap."
Is your objective to win at all costs?
"The way the Rallye Deutschland unfolded showed yet again that the picture can change very quickly in rallying, so lots can still happen between now and the end of the season. Including New Zealand, there are still six events to come and there are still plenty of points up for grabs. I want to pass back ahead of Marcus, so that basically means we will do what we can to win. That said, we cannot afford to come away from Hamilton with a blank scorecard. So, yes, my objective will be to win, but not at all costs."
Have you recovered from your disappointment in Germany?
"It is never easy to retire when you're battling for a place on the podium. I had succeeded in finding a good, safe pace that put us ahead of Marcus Gronholm and just behind Sebastien. I had an excellent feeling with the Citroen C4 WRC and I probably had a good chance of fighting for a top-three finish, but our weekend came to a halt on SS6. That's motor sport, though; you've just got to accept it. I am still confident for the rest of the year, however. Our spell of ill-luck is sure to come to an end some time."
The Rally New Zealand was new to you last year. How did you find the country and the stages?
"They're a long way from home! It takes practically a day of flying to get there and the same to travel back to Europe. That's not easy for someone like me who has trouble sitting still for any length of time! That said, I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to have the chance to fly to the other side of the planet to contest a rally. I remember New Zealand being very green with some fantastic landscapes . I also recall the stages being challenging and enjoyable."
What sort of result will you be targeting in Hamilton this year?
"I don't think it will be easy to match the fastest gravel drivers. I don't have the experience necessary to attack freely on this sort of terrain. I will try to aim for a top-five finish, which would be an excellent result for me."
The 2007 Rally New Zealand in brief
* The Rally New Zealand was organised for the first time in 1969. This year will be the 37th edition of the event, and the 29th as a qualifying round of the World Rally Championship.
* For the second year running, the event is based in Hamilton, capital of the Waikato region and situated 125km south of Auckland. The HQ, media room, parc ferme and service park are all based at the Mystery Creek Events Center, an 87-hectare site 16km south of Hamilton.
* The total length of the 2007 event is 1,255.98km, including 353.56km divided into 18 stages (11 different ).
* New Zealand is in the UTC+12 time zone. The difference with CET is therefore 10 hours. When it is 11.00 in Paris, it is 21.00 in Hamilton. The local currency is the New Zealand dollar (NZD1 0.50).
* Recce is scheduled for Tuesday August 28 (between 08.00 and 19.00 SS2/4, SS1/3, SS14/17, SS13/16 and SS12/15) and Wednesday August 29 (between 08.00 and 18.45 SS6, SS7, SS8, SS10, SS11 and the super-special (SS5/9/11). Two passes are authorised at specific times.
* Shakedown (Thursday August 30, from 08.00 until 12.00) uses the same 3.08km test stage near the Mystery Park service park as in 2006.
* The start ceremony takes place on Thursday August 30 in the centre of Hamilton (Hood Street). It starts at 18.00.
* The Rally New Zealand is a 'paired event'. The engines of both Citroen C4 WRCs are new and will go on to contest the Rally Japan, as will the two chassis to which they are linked. The pairing system also includes restrictions regarding front and rear subframes and steering racks. Four of each (one per car, plus two spares) are authorised for New Zealand and Japan. They are not linked to any one C4 WRC in particular and can be used freely on either car.
* Two gearboxes are available for this event and for Japan.
* Tyres the quota per driver is 60 tyres, of which 38 may be used (event + shakedown). Barcode lists and the pattern choice had to be nominated by Monday July 16.
* The podium ceremony takes place at the Mystery Creek Events Centre and starts at 15.15.
* Note: The rally takes place 11 weeks earlier than it did in 2006 (November 16-19). A remote service zone has been organised in Raglan, 63km from Mystery Creek. The stages are practically identical to those of 2006. Certain stages have simply changed name since last year.
* Citroen has won once in New Zealand (in 2005 with the Xsara WRC of Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena).
* Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena took part in recce for the 2002 and 2006 events. They won outright in 2005 (Citroen Xsara WRC) and finished 4th in 2003 and 2004 (Citroen Xsara WRC).
* This will be the second participation of Dani Sordo in Rally New Zealand (2006: 5th /Citroen Xsara/Marc Marti).
* Marc Marti has contested this event four times: 2006 (5th /Dani Sordo/Citroen Xsara), 2004 (6th /Carlos Sainz/Citroen Xsara), 2003 (12th /Carlos Sainz/Citroen Xsara) and 1997 (15th /Oriol Gomez/Seat Ibiza).
* A privately-run Xsara WRC has been entered by OMV Kronos Citroen World Rally Team for Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor.