Bidding for success in Corsica In its bid to score further big points, the current Manufacturers' championship leaders CitroÃ«n have entered two Xsara WRCs for the Tour of Corsica; one for SÃ©bastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, who clinched the 2005 ...
Bidding for success in Corsica
In its bid to score further big points, the current Manufacturers' championship leaders Citroën have entered two Xsara WRCs for the Tour of Corsica; one for Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, who clinched the 2005 Drivers title* in Japan, and the other for François Duval/Sven Smeets.
Three weeks after the FIA World Rally Championship's visit to the Far East, the series is back in Europe for Rounds 14 and 15 of the calendar which take teams to France and Spain in successive weekends.
The Versailles-Satory squad is looking forward to this year's visit to the Mediterranean island which holds many good memories for it, from the one-two finish of Philippe Bugalski/Jean-Paul Chiaroni and Jesús Puras/Marc Marti with the Xsara Kit-Car in 1999 and the Xsara WRC's maiden win in the hands of Puras/Marti in 2001, to the securing of Sébastien and Daniel's first Drivers' crown and the clinching of Citroën's second consecutive Manufacturers' title in Ajaccio this time last year.
This year, Sébastien and Daniel are ahead of schedule: their 2nd place in Japan put the finishing touch to their title-winning run during which they have set a number of new records, including a score of eight wins to date. "But winning the Drivers' title is only half the job," announced Guy Fréquelin in Obihiro. "We will now try to finish it off by winning the Manufacturers' crown again."
Winning a third consecutive Manufacturers' title is now the team's primary objective and, to boost its chances, it is clearly hoping for a top result in Corsica. Its hopes are founded on the recent domination of the Xsara WRC and its Michelin tyres on asphalt -- admittedly of a very different type -- in Germany, but Sébastien's motivation to win his home round for the first time and François Duval's previous strong runs on the island have also helped fire the team's optimism.
Even so, everyone in the Citroën camp knows that Corsica won't be easy. "It's an event we know well," says Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon, "but we haven't always been successful, even though the Xsara tends to go well there. The twisty, rather narrow stages feature frequent portions of bumpy, ageing asphalt, so you need a car that soaks up vertical travel well and doesn't understeer. We have taken that into account to fine-tune every tiny detail of the Xsara's set-up, as well as working through the range of tyres made available by Michelin. We have some good cards in hand. It's now up to us to play them effectively."
One of the key challenges of Corsica is getting tyre choice right, with stages starting between 45 minutes and up to 3 hours after service. The Sagone, Ajaccio and Valinco Gulfs all serve as corridors which channel clouds inland from the sea before the latter break over the lofty mountain ridges. In the same stage, it is not rare to find a dry, say, south-facing slope and a very wet, but quickly drying northern slope. "Aria ròssa à la marina, piscia o sòffia la matina," goes a local proverb; "Red sky at night, rain or wind the next morning". From Thursday evening, there are sure to be many heads turned towards the sky over the Sanguinaires islands west of Ajaccio...
Questions to Guy Fréquelin...
You've competed in the Tour of Corsica ten times yourself as a driver. You know the stages very well. What are the keys to success on this rally?
"Finding the right pace and reading the weather well. As in my day, you need to find the right flow in Corsica as you 'throw' the car from one corner to the next. That can be very demanding physically but it's such a pleasure for a driver. The roads beckon you to push... but you've got to make sure you don't get carried away! The other key factor is the weather. The Tour of Corsica is one of those rallies, if not the rally, which are the most difficult to call in this area. Today, drivers no longer chose their tyres at the start of each stage. Decisions are taken a long time before the due start time, and sometimes well before the start of the loop's second stage. On such a mountainous, sunny island as Corsica, the roads have ample time to get wet and then dry out again in the interim, so you've got an even bigger chance of being caught on inappropriate rubber..."
Citroën stands out as clear favourite for Corsica. How do you cope with that?
"There's got to be a favourite and, given our recent results on asphalt, it's us. That said, it is always possible for our rivals to make a big jump forward. That's what enabled us to catch them by surprise in New Zealand. The results of the opening stages will provide a clearer picture... As for coping with our position as favourites, that's not a problem. We have a competitive car and two talented crews, but we are also all aware that it would be dangerous to simply rest on our laurels. I would also add that, at this moment in time, with our possible return to the WRC under consideration, the best way to get a chance to come back is to deliver results..."
Sébastien Loeb sewed up the Drivers' title in Japan. What sort of influence will that have on your other objective which is to win the Manufacturers' championship?
"It doesn't change much! The personal pressure is off Seb and he can now focus on the Manufacturers' title. I know he really wants to win the Tour of Corsica and that's fine so long as it doesn't lead him to take excessive risks. The two objectives are compatible. He is quite capable of handling this sort of situation. Rally Japan also highlighted the fact that François Duval is once again driving well and has his confidence back. That's a plus for us. My recommendation to my two drivers is the same though: be at the finish."
...to Sébastien Loeb...
Can you tell us about your principal recollection of your five previous visits to Corsica?
"In 1999, with the Saxo, we nearly had a 'big one' over the Calvese jump which I misjudged. From what I'm told, our leap was a huge success with the spectators. The following year was unforgettable because it was our first outing in a World Rally Car. In 2001, we wanted to wrap up the Super 1600 series to be sure of the title before the RAC which is always an unpredictable event. I have rarely had such a fierce scrap as I did that year with Andrea Dallavilla. The final stage on slicks in the rain was particularly hairy! I made a mistake in the 2003 event which cost be 10 minutes perched on a bank and then, in 2004, we clinched the two titles on our home event in front of our friends and families. Sheer joy!"
You like playing with your car, keeping it on the verge of sliding over the fast portions. But Corsica isn't the ideal place for that sort of style. What do think about the stages?
"I like the way they flow. In fact the Corsican stages are not as slow as many people imagine. OK, we are sometimes in 3rd gear, but more often than not we are in 4th or 5th gear. There are very few straights, but there are bumpy sections which tend to unsettle the car, so there's plenty going on. There's no time to get bored. What I like less is the fickleness of the weather. Driving in the wet on dry weather tyres is frankly a very delicate exercise, dangerous even. Not much fun at all. But that's rallying..."
It's rare for you to talk so much about your desire to win an event so ardently before it starts...
"That's true. I can't conceal that I really want to win the Tour of Corsica. I say that I want to win it, not that I will win it. I want to win it because it's France's round of the World Championship. All my friends will be there and we will have the support of thousand of fans. I also want to win it because victory has escaped me at least once there so far. Judging by the way the season has gone until now, I think we stand a chance. The Xsara is very strong on asphalt. It will be up to me to make full use of that. If the conditions stay dry, we might perhaps be able to repeat the scenario we saw in Germany. If it rains, especially if the weather is showery and unpredictable, anything can happen, as we saw in 2003! But we will give it our very best whatever happens..."
...and to François Duval...
Tell us about Corsica and the Tour of Corsica...
"If I had the time, it's a place I would love to visit on holiday. The Tour of Corsica is my favourite rally. It is relatively slow and the asphalt stages are quite narrow, often bumpy and sometimes slippery. Being on dry weather tyres in the rain doesn't bother me unduly, so long as everyone's in the same boat! In 2002, I was driving a World Rally Car for only the second time and I was going quite well until I retired. In 2003, I finished on the podium for the second time of my career and last year I was in the fight at the sharp end before my retirement... Otherwise I think I would have finished 2nd at worst. In a word, it's a rally on which I feel comfortable."
What sort of result do you think you can achieve?
"The Corsican stages are obviously not the same as those we found in Germany. But it's still asphalt, so I think the domination of the Xsara and our tyres in the Deutschland Rally is still a valid pointer. And if that does prove to be the case again, I really hope I can finish on the podium..."
In what position?
"Ah, good question! Seb is World Champion, so the pressure is now off his shoulders. He wants to win, so the level of the fight promises to be very high. At the same time, both he and I will have to think in terms of the Manufacturers' championship which is now our priority objective. It would be nice if we could sew up the title very soon."