Back to square one!
With two rounds left the FIA World Rally Championship looks like it’s heading for a thrilling climax! Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, who have led the drivers’ title chase since Rally Mexico, were caught in the French event. Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia are riding shotgun three points behind the leaders, so Citroën can count on a second crew. Rally Spain could provide the Citroën Total World Rally Team with a great opportunity to clinch its seventh title in the Manufacturers’ World Championship.
Organized on tarmac since its inclusion on the WRC calendar in the early 90s, Rally Catalunya changed its orientation last year. The Spanish round became a mixed event with the first day on gravel followed by two days on tarmac reviving a type of rally that had disappeared from the championship. In theory, this shouldn’t pose any particular problems for the cars and engineers, all the more so as the current crop of World Rally Cars uses many common components for the gravel and tarmac versions. In addition, the Friday evening service time will be extended to 75 minutes – compared to 45 in normal conditions – to give the mechanics enough time to modify the cars’ setup.
For the leader of the world championship, being first out on the road on the first leg will be even more of a handicap than in the 100% gravel rallies. Sébastien Loeb, the joint leader in the overall classification with Mikko Hirvonen, will once again have this doubtful privilege because of his higher number of victories. “If the weather’s dry, it’s never good being first out on the road when it’s a question of gravel,” anticipated the seven-time world champion. “I run the risk of finding myself well behind on Friday evening. But on tarmac on the following stages those in front won’t be handicapped in turn. For me the strategy is very simple – flat out from start to finish!
It’s all the better for the sport! I know that Hirvonen’s going to go for broke.
Although luck seems to have deserted the Citroën Total World Rally Team driver since his stunning victory in Rally Finland, he remains optimistic: “I’d have preferred it if the last three rallies had worked out differently, but the fact is that today we’ve got our backs to the wall. It’s all the better for the sport! I know that Hirvonen’s going to go for broke. I’ve also got a few aces up my sleeve like my Citroën DS3 WRC, which has given the team victory in nine out of the eleven rallies this season. I also won the two remaining events in 2008, 2009 and 2010. All these factors reinforce my confidence. This kind of situation has always swung in our favour in the past, and it’s up to us to do everything so that we stay on the winning trail in the weeks to come!”
The Citroën Total World Rally Team can also count on Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia, who have closed the gap to the leaders to three points after their success in Rally France. “Our fifth victory of the season was a peak moment for us as we won our national rally and scored our second win on tarmac,” said Ogier. “I’ve got no illusions where the drivers’ world championship’s concerned. Normally, it should boil down to a fight between Seb and Mikko. But our position means that the team can play off two against one. For Rally Spain, our objective will be to score the points that will help Citroën win the manufacturers’ world championship.” To clinch its seventh title the Citroën Total World Rally Team needs to leave Spain with a lead of 43 points over its closest rival. The gap currently stands at 54 points.
Three questions to Olivier Quesnel
Sébastien Loeb being the joint leader in the world championship two rallies from the end is not the scenario you imagined a few weeks ago, is it?
“We never stopped repeating the fact that we had to be on our guard and that nothing would be decided before the end. Unfortunately, events have proved us right. A puncture, an accident and a mechanical problem have reduced the gap that Sébastien Loeb patiently opened up to zero. Sébastien Ogier, who lost precious points in the early part of the season has galloped back to the front thanks to his two victories in the last three rallies. It’s true that the situation before the start of Rally Spain is an unexpected one. But we’re still well placed beginning with the manufacturers’ championship that we’re determined to clinch this weekend.”
How do you see the last two rallies of the season unfolding?
“Sébastien Loeb is still the hot favourite; he’s not been seven-times world champion for nothing! Seb has not been beaten in Spain since 2005 and in Great Britain since 2008! I still remember the dashing way he won the title in 2009. Obviously, he’s got his back to the wall but he knows how to cope with this type of situation. He knows that the team’s doing its utmost to give him a DS3 WRC that’s as quick as it’s reliable. If Seb runs into more trouble, we can count on Sébastien Ogier. He’s only three points behind so he’s more than an ace in the hole for Citroën!”
Does this mean that your two drivers won’t be free to fight for the title?
“The biggest mistake we could make would be to choose the wrong rival. Mikko Hirvonen is tackling Rally Spain with the same number of points as Sébastien Loeb. He’s the dangerman, nobody else! In these conditions we have to bet all our chances on the driver who has the most points in the drivers’ world championship. And that driver is Sébastien Loeb.”