The CitroÃ«n C4 WRC out to conquer new ground The fifth round of the 2007 World Rally Championship takes teams to Portugal where CitroÃ«n has entered C4 WRCs for SÃ©bastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/ Marc MartÃ. For the first time...
The Citroën C4 WRC out to conquer new ground
The fifth round of the 2007 World Rally Championship takes teams to Portugal where Citroën has entered C4 WRCs for Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/ Marc Martí.
For the first time since 2001, the Rally de Portugal is back on the WRC calendar. The very name of this former classic conjures up images of spectacular leaps over the Fafe jumps, massive crowds, hanging dust and thick fog that so often proved decisive over the infamous Arganil tests. For many years, the Portuguese fixture was a mixed-surface event before switching to an all-gravel format in 1995. Today, in their bid to retrieve their place amongst the WRC elite, its organisers have adapted their event to the modern template and, in 2005, after Lisbon and Porto, have chosen to move its epicentre to Faro, capital of the Algarve region at the southern tip of the country.
The return of this household name to the sport's premier series is a rew ard for the perseverance of the devoted Portuguese fans who were deprived of world class action for five years and who have long been renowned for the enthusiastic welcome they give to the rally fraternity.
The compact 2007 route features a classic format of one daily loop contested twice. Friday's stages takes crews to the north-east of the Algarve Stadium service park, while Saturday's action will focus on the village of Almodovar to the north-west. The third and final day due north of service is the shortest of the weekend and notably includes the second attempt at the super-special which will run in and around the stadium itself.
Sébastien Loeb will be competing in the Rally de Portugal for the first time. Although some of his rivals took part in 2001's extremely wet, Porto-based event, this year's Algarve-based stages will be a step into unknown territory for most WRC runners. "It's nice to see this round back in the championship," says Seb. "Rallying is so popular in Portugal and we know we will be given a warm welcome. My aim will be to try to take another win."
Dani Sordo is one of only three WRC drivers to benefit from previous experience of the stages and, for the first time in his young career, he can look forward to starting an event with a handy edge over his rivals. "I have been to Faro twice," he acknowledges, "but that prior knowledge of the terrain doesn't mean I will lose sight of the objective I have had since the start of the year. The main thing will be to score points for Citroën."
The Portuguese round is more traditional than the recent Rally Mexico inasmuch as it doesn't take place at altitude. The engines of the WRC cars will be able to 'breathe' normally and consequently exploit all their power potential. For Citroën Sport, the trip to Europe's south-eastern tip promises to be capital on a number of accounts. "Mexico was the first gravel round of the year," recalls Guy Fréquelin. "It was also the maiden outing on the loose for the Citroën C4 WRC and the fact that we won confirmed the potential we saw on snow. Its reliability over Mexico's hot, challenging stages was extremely encouraging for Portugal where our aim will be to try to win. As we saw in Norway, new events can spring some surprises and, given the situation in the Manufacturers' standings, it will important to have both cars in a good position at the finish."
What lessons did you bring back from Mexico?
"First of all, the fact that the C4 WRC succeeded in winning its maiden outing on gravel provided an indication of its potential on the loose. Also, Dani's good run reassured me regarding his ability on dirt. But the final result saw us gain just one point on the leader in the Manufacturers' standings and that shows that nothing will be easy."
What does Portugal's return to the World Rally Championship fold mean to you?
"In marketing terms, the event's return is a very positive thing because the country is an important market for car manufacturers. It's also good from the sporting angle because the Portuguese population has always given motorsport such an extraordinary welcome. The prospect of competing in front of such connoisseur, enthusiastic spectators is particularly nice. That said, it will be vital for the organisers to communicate effectively, a bit like the job done prior to the 2007 Monte Carlo Rally's Ardèche stages to ensure that everything ran smoothly."
How do you prepare for an event for which you have no benchmarks?
"We were not permitted to test in Portugal, but that's a situation we also faced in New Zealand and Argentina the first year we competed there, so it's not new. At Citroën Sport, we extrapolate from work in conditions that most resemble what we are likely to find on the event. In the case of Portugal, we have been able to take onboard information supplied by Dani and Marc who were present for last year's rally. The stages are apparently twistier than Mexico, with a big difference in grip levels between the first and second passes."
...to Sébastien Loeb...
With one win to its name on asphalt and one on gravel, the C4 appears to be a well-sorted package...
"I was looking forward to the trip to Mexico to see where we stood on gravel. The new C4 turned out to be nicely balanced and competitive at all speeds. Its handling is precise over the faster portions, it doesn't understeer when the going is slower and its traction is good. I feel nearly more comfortable at its wheel than I did at that of a Xsara. The first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally was quite a challenge but I immediately felt I could attack without reserve. I had the same sensation in Mexico and that's a sign that a car is easy to drive."
In the end, the Rally Norway gave you a chance to work on the C4's development...
"On the second day of the event, we found ourselves in a situation where we had no chance of winning, so we decided to do a little testing. This enabled us to pinpoint certain shortcomings we wouldn't normally have complained about but which, on reflection, were influencing the C4's handling. We explored a number of solutions on the final day in Norway and continued that work during our build-up to Mexico. The result was very positive."
What does the Rally de Portugal mean to you and what will your objective be in Faro?
"I only have a vague recollection of recce for the 2001 event in up to half a metre of mud north of Porto. Dani has told me a little about the new stages but, as for many drivers, it will basically be a step into unknown territory for me. I will approach the rally as I do every event, new or otherwise, and I will do my utmost to win it."
...and to Dani Sordo.
What is your analysis of your performance in Mexico?
"In addition to the fact that I finished fourth, I principally recall the times I set on those stages on which I was only competing for the second time. Compared with 2006, the gap compared with the fastest drivers was considerably smaller. My notes and feeling were also better. That enabled me to mix it with the top crews and I finished just short of the podium. The result was good for my confidence, but I always knew I would feel more comfortable on gravel than I did on snow ."
The C4 WRC seems to suit your style...
"The C4 gives you confidence. For example, you can push hard through the faster portions with a completely free mind and without fear of being caught out by an unexpected reaction. The new car is less pointy than the Xsara; it's more progressive and more comfortable. Marc and I thoroughly enjoyed the stages in Mexico." You have already contested the Rally de Portugal twice. What can you tell us about it?
"It's true that I have a little more experience of an event than the others for once. This rally is essentially a concentrate of all the other WRC rounds, with a mix of fast and slower portions. It can also be rough in a few places, while the stages range from wide to narrow and the surface can be both sandy and hard-packed. It's a terrific event and relatively easy to note because there are no major hazards."