The CitroÃ«n C4 WRC faces its first wintry test After celebrating its return to world class rallying with a one-two finish on January's Monte Carlo Rally, CitroÃ«n Sport has entered two CitroÃ«n C4 WRCs for the Swedish Rally. The cars will be ...
The Citroën C4 WRC faces its first wintry test
After celebrating its return to world class rallying with a one-two finish on January's Monte Carlo Rally, Citroën Sport has entered two Citroën C4 WRCs for the Swedish Rally. The cars will be driven by Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Martí.
The Monte Carlo Rally's move to the Valence region of France passed off successfully, but in the end there wasn't the slightest hint of snow on the season's curtain-raiser, just a tiny bit of frost to keep the drivers on their toes. Sweden will therefore be the first chance for the fledgling Citroën C4 WRC to compete in anger in wintry conditions, which explains the cautious attitude of everyone at Citroën Sport going into the event. "We know we are competitive on asphalt; now we need to see how the C4 WRC performs on snow," observes Guy Fréquelin.
With the addition of Rally Norway to the calendar the week after Sweden, the Karlstad-based round is no longer the WRC's only winter fixture. Even so, its profile and the specific nature of its stages ensure that it keeps its unique flavour. The lanes that criss-cross the Värmland region are generally very fast and, along with Finland, it is one of the fastest rounds of the championship despite taking place on stages habitually so icy that it is impossible to walk on them.
The speeds reached and the precision driving demanded are two of the reasons why the drivers are so fond of the annual trip to Sweden. "Our studded BFGoodrich tyres can give more grip than we find on gravel," points out Sébastien Loeb, winner of the 2004 event. "It really is fast. You've got to be totally concentrated and drive extremely precisely because it's so easy to make a small mistake. When the stages are lined with snow banks, you have a bit of a margin for error, but not a very big one." The pleasure of competing over a coating of fresh snow or ice can be spoiled, however, if a thaw sets in. The job then becomes more complex as gravel is exposed, with the added risk of stud breakage and punctures. The snow banks melt away and the drivers need to be even more vigilant than ever.
The Swedish Rally's inherent difficulty is highlighted by the fact that only once in 55 events has victory escaped the Nordic drivers. The combination of their local knowledge and the instinctive car control they develop on this type of surface at an early age has permitted them to repeatedly ward off the challenges of champions of the calibre of Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol. But they weren't able to prevent Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena taking the laurels with the Xsara WRC in 2004 and the Citroën pair wouldn't be against pulling off the same feat this time round.
To prepare for the season's first wintry encounter, Citroën Sport spent four days testing in Sweden at the end of 2006, with the two drivers on duty for two days each. "Our objectives during that test included seeing how the C4 WRC performed on the specific narrow tyres we use on this type of surface," reports Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "We also wanted to ensure that the car's mechanicals functioned properly in the cold. The result of our programme, which took in a variety of different road types, was positive."
For 'rookies', the Swedish Rally is one of the most complex outings of the year. "This rally is made difficult by its unique surface and the high speeds the drivers reach over its very narrow stages. That's a lot to take onboard at the same time," says Guy Fréquelin. Sébastien saw that for himself the first time he went to Sweden, while Dani Sordo found out in turn last year. The Spaniard has already shown his ability to adapt particularly quickly, but he will doubtlessly need to bide his time before he finds himself in a position where he can play a leading role here. "Given the little experience he has on snow," continues Guy, "Dani shouldn't try to push too hard. He absolutely needs to finish without making any mistakes to be sure of finishing in the points." Meanwhile, Sébastien Loeb has shown through his success in 2004 that he is capable of challenging for top spot. For the Frenchman, the principal unknowns are the Citroën C4 WRC's potential and the quantity of snow that will be present on Leg 1 which will dictate how much 'road-sweeping' he will have to do on the first day.
...to Guy Fréquelin...
Despite your concerns, the Monte Carlo Rally went rather well for you?
"We effectively couldn't have wished for a better start to the Citroën C4 WRC's career. We have to acknowledge however that the conditions we faced on this year's Monte Carlo probably helped us finish first and second. The outcome could well have been different had the event taken place a week later with all the snow that fell in the region during the days after the finish. At Citroën Sport, we are all consequently on our guards because the Swedish Rally is not the Monte Carlo."
Your result nonetheless eases the pressure going into the next round, doesn't it?
"For sure, we will be under a little less pressure. The performance of the C4 WRC on asphalt was reassuring; we feel comfortable that it is an easy car to drive and Seb's arm didn't seem to be a problem. All the questions we faced upstream of the Monte received a favourable answer. Our one-two in Monaco was a big boost for everyone at Citroën Sport, but we haven't lost sight of the fact that Sweden is likely to be a very different story. The questions that still need answering are how the car will go on snow and where it stands in terms of reliability."
Sweden will be the second of three events with the same engine. There are also
restrictions concerning the number of gearboxes you can use. Are these factors
further areas of concern for you?
"Of course. As I've said, Sweden promises to be a very different story to the Monte Carlo because other factors come into play, notably the fact that we will have to do three rallies with the same engine and that we will only have two gearboxes to cover both Sweden and Norway. On top of that, the cars will need to be revised in the very short space of time we will have between the two events. We prepared for this by doing a dry run in our workshops but there will still be a degree of uncertainty when we have to do the job for real."
...to Sébastien Loeb...
Before the start of the Monte Carlo Rally, you seemed to be under an uncustomary
degree of pressure.
"I was effectively under pressure, for a number of reasons. Because of my accident, I hadn't competed for four months and I didn't know whether my arm would be a problem or not. At the same time, the car was new and the stages, too, were not only new but also extremely fast. In addition to that, the rally started at night and in the wet. These were all ingredients that complicated the start of the season. To kick the year off with so many unknowns was always going to be stressful."
Were you reassured by the result?
"I felt better already on the road section out to the start of the first stage. I was completely focused and I managed to put all the rest to the back of my mind. The first split times were reassuring and I didn't feel hampered by my arm either. The Monte Carlo Rally gave us a chance to see that the C4 has a great deal of potential on asphalt. Ours concerns about discovering a new car on new stages were soon dissipated. It didn't take me long to have confidence in the C4 which was easy to drive. We now need to see how it performs on snow and dirt."
Is the Swedish Rally an event you enjoy?
"It all depends on the conditions. When there's a nice, consistent coating of ice for the studs to bite into, then it's ideal. If, on top of that, the stages are lined by snow banks and the sun is shining, it's a fantastic rally; one of my favourites! The picture gets complicated if the ice is covered by snow. The grip then becomes changeable, ruts form and, if you don't keep to them, the studs pick up fresh snow and the car's reactions become brutal and unpleasant. The worse case scenario is mild weather. You've got no snow banks to lean on, everything melts and you end up driving on dirt. When that happens, it's not my favourite event. On the contrary."
...and to Dani Sordo
What was your analysis after your debut with the Citroën C4 WRC?
"After driving the C4 WRC in testing I sensed it had real potential on asphalt and I immediately thought a top result was on the cards. But testing is one thing and I knew we shouldn't get carried away. We needed to see how it fared on an event, against real competition. We were reassured when we saw the split times of the first stages. The C4 is easy to drive. It is perhaps a little less agile than the Xsara but its other strengths compensate for that. The engine and chassis are very good and it is less pointy than the Xsara. We weren't totally at ease through the slow portions to begin with but it is much better today."
What do you remember of your first visit to Sweden?
"It's really a rally for which I have very few benchmarks. Last year, I drove on snow with a WRC car the Xsara for the first time during shakedown. My main concern was to make good notes during recce. I didn't realise how fast the stages were. The early part of the event was very difficult but my times weren't that bad and, by the end of Leg 1, I felt totally confident. Driving on snow is pretty much the sam e as driving on gravel, with some differences, like braking for example. I like the Swedish Rally. It's like Finland... on snow."
What is your objective this time round?
"It is a bit different from my objective on the Monte Carlo Rally because I have more experience of sealed surfaces. This year, I intend to continue to learn and try to score points for Citroën. Even though the rally was new to me last year, I was able to mix it with the Nordic drivers. With the 2006 event now behind me and the progress represented by the C4 WRC, I believe that if I drive at my own pace, without taking any risks, I can score a good result for Citroën Sport."