Taking stock before Argentina. FranÃ§ois-Xavier Demaison, Operations Manager and Marcus GrÃ¶nholm's engineer, had hardly finished celebrating his driver's win in New Zealand than it was time to begin final preparations for the following round ...
Taking stock before Argentina.
François-Xavier Demaison, Operations Manager and Marcus Grönholm's engineer, had hardly finished celebrating his driver's win in New Zealand than it was time to begin final preparations for the following round in Argentina.
Q: The route of the 2003 Rally Argentina features a number of changes compared with last year's event. Will that affect your approach?
Demaison: "Not really. Even though the loop of magnificent but rough stages to the southwest of Cordoba has been dropped, this year's rally is still likely to be tough on the mechanicals. The stages that have survived will be used more than once and will no doubt cut up, so they will make the cars suffer just the same. As a result, they will be just as strong as those we built for last year's event."
Q: On-site testing for non-European rallies is now banned. How have you modified the way you prepare for these events?
Demaison: "We have tried to find venues in Europe that are close to the terrain we will find on the event, both in terms of surface type and profile. Weather conditions also need to be similar to those you are likely to encounter during the rally. For Argentina, we consulted the drivers and finally opted for a base in Portugal. We went there at the beginning of spring, which resembles the Argentine autumn."
Q: Does this new regulation complicate your job?
Demaison: "It has its pros and its cons. Testing in Argentina during the week prior to the rally had its appeal and gave everyone a bit more time to acclimatise. It was a good opportunity to work on a representative surface and in realistic weather conditions.
"That said, it wasn't possible to carry out useful tyre testing since Michelin couldn't ship out a huge selection of tyres, nor was it able to produce and deliver the compounds we found the most effective in the space of just one week. We now enjoy a bit more flexibility in this domain, as well as more latitude when it comes to planning our schedules between two World Championship rounds.
"Generally, we now have enough experience to find alternative terrains that enable us to work well, so the new ruling is not such a big handicap as all that. The only exception is Australia. Apart from bringing back container-loads of the small round stones you find out there, there is no way identical conditions can be produced in Europe."
Q: Test benches and computer programmes enable you to do more and more simulation work at the factory. In the long term, could this remove the need for testing?
Demaison: "Don't worry; the all-virtual approach is not just around the corner! It could be a solution if rallies took place round 4km circuits, always on the same type of surface. On a rally with something like 400km of stages, even if half of them are repeated, there are far too many changeable parameters, including running order, weather, tyre choice, tyre wear, the state of the car after a number of stages without service, etc.
"I think it would be extremely difficult to cover every scenario with a computer programme. Even when you carry out real life testing, there is always a certain amount of improvisation. That's what makes the difficulty, magic and fascination of the sport. The simulation software we use at the factory simply allows us to evaluate the strength of certain assemblies, to see whether components play their role correctly, to check running temperatures, etc.
"But a complete, ready-to-rally car needs to be driven on a real road with a real driver at the wheel."
Q: When that car is your 206 WRC, the development of which has today reached a very mature stage, can testing still teach you anything you don't already know?
Demaison: "Of course! Sometimes a driver or a new engineer will come up with a fresh idea, a small engine improvement might call for a general adaptation, or Michelin might come up with a new tyre evolution that we need to evaluate.
"The essence of an engineer, like everyone at Peugeot Sport, is to have a brain that is constantly churning over looking for anything that can improve performance. The record of the 206 WRC and the advanced stage of its development are actually stimulants and not considerations that mean we can just sit back and take a breather.
"Time and time again, whenever you think you've gone just about as far as you can, you find a little tweak that makes the car more competitive, more reliable or easier to drive. However advanced it may be, a car is never perfect and can always be improved. Its evolution only really stops the day its replacement takes over."
Q: The more the 206 WRC evolves, the more it seems to suit Marcus Grönholm. He drives it with disconcerting ease and doesn't seem to worry unduly about set up considerations. How does he do that?
Demaison: "The 206 WRC is effectively finely matched to Marcus' driving style. He knows the car better today than all our other drivers. But the legend of the quick Finn being quick in any car whatever its set up is not true.
"Marcus began by telling us what sort of handling he wanted and it took us some time before he was completely satisfied. He won the World Championship in 2000 by giving the best of himself. The osmosis wasn't there yet; he found himself fighting with the car and there were a few close calls.
"The change came in Australia in 2001 with the new evolution of the 206 WRC. He began to feel completely at one with the car and was able to drive faster without taking risks. Since then, he has modified certain parameters as the car has evolved but he continues to work from the same basic set up which suits him perfectly.
"On our data, we can see that he uses the car in the same way on every rally, with a marked tendency to keep his right foot flat to the floor for a very long time!"