Sardinia: Treasure Island? Located a little less than 140 km south-east of Ajaccio, their next port of call after Sardinia, the Xsara WRCs of Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti will kick off the final quarter of the 2004 ...
Sardinia: Treasure Island?
Located a little less than 140 km south-east of Ajaccio, their next port of call after Sardinia, the Xsara WRCs of Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti will kick off the final quarter of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship to the prestigious backdrop of Porto Cervo.
After New Zealand, Cyprus, Japan and Great Britain, the question is whether the fifth of the seven islands visited by the series this season will turn out to be Treasure Island for the team. The name given to the enchanting shores of this part of the Mediterranean on which the jewel of Porto Cervo is set, the Emerald Coast (Costa Smeralda) tends to suggest that it could.
It is true that with his current lead of 28 points, and with a maximum of 40 points still 'winnable' between now and the end of the season, Sebastien Loeb is as close as he has ever been to securing the Drivers' crown. Mathematically, should his closest remaining rival win the last four rounds, that person's score will total 104 points. To be sure of taking the title therefore, 'Seb' will need 105 points. Since his tally currently stands at 92, he only needs to harvest a further 13 to sew up the series...
Put another way, should the Italian round enable the Citroën driver to extend his advantage at the top of the table by 3 points, which would take his lead to 31 points, then the treasure trail will end in Sardinia. For even if someone does succeed in bagging 30 points in Corsica, Catalonia and Australia, that would not be sufficient to catch the Frenchman.
For the time being however, all this is pure conjecture. Indeed, those who have read Robert Louis Stevenson's celebrated novel will recall that his young hero suffered a long list of setbacks after arriving on the famous island...
Sardinia succeeds from the Sanremo Rally as Italy's round of the World Championship and, as one of the newcomers to this year's calendar, it naturally poses a number of questions. As a European round, pre-event testing there is permitted, but the exact resemblance between the base chosen by the team for its test work and the stages themselves remains to be seen. "The terrain was totally new to us," confirms Technical Manager Jean-Claude Vaucard. "The roads are relatively slow and narrow and produce relatively little vertical suspension travel. The most difficult factor to evaluate concerns how and to what extent the terrain will evolve with each vpassing car... The other variable concerns the weather. After all, this is an island!"
For this new venue, Citroën will be able to count on its usual assets: competitive, reliable, safe crews, whose other qualities include patience and pugnacity, a Xsara which the statistics reveal to be the most reliable car of the field, a technical squad whose reactivity enables it to adapt swiftly to changes of terrain, weather and scenario, as well as a team that is increasingly motivated by the prospect of seizing two very important treasures...
Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, Kinetic, OZ, AIS and Citroën Financement are Team Citroën Total's partners in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Questions to Guy Frequelin...
With retrospect, what is your analysis of your recent performance in Wales?
"With retrospect, it's the cold statistics that talk. Our one-two result in Argentina brought us eighteen points. Our current lead in the Manufacturers' standings is thirty-eight points. We therefore have the equivalent of two one-two finishes in hand and our objective is to hold on to this advantage. In the Drivers' championship, Wales Rally GB was a good result for Sebastien. But more than just the cold figures, what pleased me the most was the quality of Seb's performance. The fact that he kept up the pace he did without making any mistakes, and that he chose to fight when he could easily have settled for eight extra points impressed me particularly. He is a proud driver, and we are all very proud of him..."
The replacement of the Sanremo Rally by Sardinia means your role switches from outgoing winner of Italy's WRC round to that of pioneers discovering a new event...
"I won't dwell on the fact that an asphalt round has been replaced by a gravel one, or on the unbalanced nature of the calendar which favours loose surfaces. I have already said what I think about that. The advantage of this situation though is that it shows that the Xsara, our drivers and our team are competitive on all types of surface. We've come a long way since the time we were only considered as a threat on asphalt... As for discovering a new event, it will be the same in principle for all the teams. So it will be up to us to be the best!"
You are naturally very attentive to the current and future situation of the World Championship...
"I am more than just attentive. For me, one of the keys is the media exposure our sport gets. For the moment it is insufficient. We need more, for it's in the light of such coverage that the value of the investment is evaluated. The other aspect is keeping costs in check. We have worked and continue to work hard with the other manufacturers to produce reasonable proposals with this in mind. Certain marques currently entered in the championship who wish to return full time and others who wish to join suggest cutting the calendar to twelve rounds. In the current circumstances, it is important that there is solidarity between the manufacturers. Out of solidarity, we could be prepared to consider this type of change if the FIA agrees..."
Questions to Sebastien Loeb...
What do you know of Sardinia? What did you find out during testing? Did you like what you saw?
"I had never been to Sardinia prior to our tests there. I am quite sensitive to the settings new rallies take us to and I must say I liked what I saw. The climate is nice, the place has that Mediterranean feel about it and the hilly scenery with those big round boulders is something I've never come across before. As for the rally itself, I don't yet know whether the test stages we used are really representative of what we will actually compete on. We will find out during the recce. If they do prove similar, then there shouldn't be too much vertical suspension travel and the surface won't be that hard. We found that the very hard packed gravel base didn't cut up all that much. Our test stages were quite narrow and it was best not to stray onto the verges which were very rocky. There are also places where you really have to brake hard, and it could be easy to make a mistake..."
Once again, you will be first on the road on the Friday. How much of a handicap do you think acting as 'road sweeper' will be?
"If the stages are anything like what we saw during testing, it will be a big handicap. Unless it rains, of course. But rain in Sardinia at this time of year seems rather improbable. So acting as 'road sweeper' for the eighty or so kilometres of the first loop of three stages could prove quite costly. So, in fact, might the second pass. We saw in testing that the stage improved noticeably with every run for quite some time. It's not often you come across a test stage that continues to evolve during the afternoon after you've been over it repeatedly during the morning... So, to sum up, I think it will probably be a big handicap that might even prove costly second time through too!
So what will your tactics be?
"From what I saw, I am a little reserved about my chances of winning. In Wales, I showed that my lead in the championship didn't prevent me from going for victory when the chance cropped up. In Sardinia, I will stick to my usual tactics: push hard from the start and do my very best, while endeavouring to stay on the right side of the limit. I will review the situation after the first loop, then again at the end of Leg 1, by which time we should know where we stand. If the wise option at that moment is to try and score as many points as possible, then I will go for it without hesitation. From what I have seen of the terrain, I think Carlos will be a good bet. It's a new rally and it will be important to perceive the lie of the land very quickly and adapt quickly... without making any mistakes. That's well within his grasp..."
Questions to Carlos Sainz...
To which rallies would you compare what you have seen of Sardinia?
"The Sardinian roads are narrow, relatively twisty and rather like Portugal or Argentina. We spent two days testing there but, until we do the recce, we won't know whether our test base was 100% representative of what we will find during the event. On the other hand, the weather was excellent, with temperatures around the 30C mark."
Being first on the road could be a handicap. Is the fact that you will be running fourth on Friday a chance for you?
"Once again, it's rather difficult to say until we see the actual route! If the stages clean quite quickly as they do, say, in New Zealand or Greece, it could be good for me. But if the stages clean more slowly, as they do in Portugal or Argentina, it won't necessarily be an advantage."
Since Finland, there has been a rally every two weeks. What do you think of this rhythm?
"That's the way the calendar is and we've got to live with it, although I personally believe it's a mistake in the current difficult economical and sporting situation! I don't want to be polemical, but I have often said that I prefer quality to quantity when it comes to events. Today's rhythm is a race within the race, and we have no time to profit from the countries we visit. We barely arrive than it's time to go straight into recce, then the event, before leaving again for somewhere else..."
Do you regret the fact that the Sanremo Rally has been dropped? What do you think of the current asphalt/gravel split?
"Unfortunately, the Sanremo lost much of its unique flavour when it did away with the Tuscany gravel stages. By becoming an all-asphalt event, it naturally lost some of its character. I have a great deal of respect for the Sanremo, but another page has turned and Italy's round now takes place in Sardinia. Let's hope the level of organisation will be up to that of the former Sanremo! I believe the ideal balance is to have an equitable share of snow, asphalt and gravel events, with each rally imperatively keeping its own character. Finland, for example, must remain Finland, with its jumps and high speeds... The same goes for all the other events. In that way, winning the Manufacturers' or Drivers' crown will mean you have been competitive everywhere and that you truly merit the title..."
Sebastien says Sardinia is a rally for you. What do you think?
"Thanks, Seb! But I'm not the only quick driver on narrow stages! He is also a favourite, as are Marcus, Markko and Petter. But it's true that I like narrow roads and I will naturally be out to do my very best..."