WRC

Cyprus Rally: Citroen preview

Citroën hoping to make it three-in-a-row... Hopping from one island to another, Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, Francois Duval/Stephane Prevot and their respective Xsara WRCs travel to the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite for Round 6 of the FIA...

Citroën hoping to make it three-in-a-row...

Hopping from one island to another, Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, Francois Duval/Stephane Prevot and their respective Xsara WRCs travel to the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite for Round 6 of the FIA World Rally Championship.

After Sardinia, the WRC crosses the Mediterranean from west to east for the first of three consecutive 'hot and rough' encounters. This will be the third visit to Limassol for the Citroën team which is now familiar with the particularities of the Cyprus Rally, especially since the route of the 2005 event is identical to that of last year, something which is very rare. The programme is the same, as are the stages which will run in exactly the same order over the three days. However, the organisers have built in two innovations: a new service park close to the recently-finished sports complex in the northern outskirts of Limassol and a new shakedown stage which moves from its traditional location near the Stavrovouni Monastery to a new gravel road just 6 km from the service park.

"The Cypriot stages place the accent on vertical suspension travel," says Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "The bumpy, undulating roads eat up a lot of the ride height, so the suspension needs to be able to cope with that as efficiently as possible. The twisty stages and their thick layer of surface gravel also call for a precise, easy to control car that allows the driver to keep it clean and stay in the lines. Last but not least, you've got to take into account the heat and very slow speeds which hamper cooling of the engine, brakes and cockpit..."

A week before Rally Italia Sardinia, Citroën travelled to Greece for a four-day test aimed not only at preparing for Cyprus, but also for the Acropolis Rally and Turkey. With Sebastien Loeb and Francois Duval taking turns at the wheel, the programme focused on fine-tuning the car's basic rough rally set-up as well as testing the latest rubber from Michelin which enabled the drivers to finalise their respective quotas of 65 tyres.

In 2003, Sebastien Loeb, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz demonstrated the Xsara WRC's remarkable reliability by finishing in close formation in 3rd, 4th and 5th positions. Last year saw the cars of Seb and Carlos combine reliability and performance and the French squad hopes that this will once again be the case this time round.

Meanwhile, following its recent wins in New Zealand and Sardinia, the team is particularly motivated and hopes to make it three-in-a-row, an exploit it has yet achieve at world level...

Questions to Guy Frequelin...

After New Zealand, you won again in Sardinia where you had to settle for 2nd place in 2004. How do you explain this leap forward?

"Last year, we chose to focus on the rougher terrains in order to improve our performance on this type of surface which we come across relatively frequently in the championship. This year, one of our priorities is our performance on smooth gravel. This has allowed us to broaden the Xsara's scope bit by bit thanks to our greater experience which has also helped the team fine-tune a long list of small details. Our progress is also due to the work of our partner Michelin, while we mustn't forget the contribution of Sebastien and Daniel. Seb has a better understanding of his car, of how to set it up and how to choose his tyres. He brings his enormous will to win to the table..."

Your domination hasn't carried over to the Manufacturers' championship. Does that worry you?

"Of course it does! You can't help but be concerned when you compare the rate at which we have dropped points and that at which we are making up lost ground. Our car has proved very strong in the last two events yet we have only bridged the gap by four points. Without wanting to dwell on it, we have let something like 15 points slip by between the Monte Carlo Rally and Sardinia. All the teams have problems; we have got to make sure we have fewer problems than our rivals. And that hasn't been the case so far..."

Last year, the so-called Mediterranean trilogy -- which takes in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey -- brought you 42 points from a maximum possible of 54. Can the current Xsara/Michelin package do as well? Is it possible to carry over your recent progress to the specific characteristics of Cyprus?

"Our performance in New Zealand was effectively a good pointer for other events, and our run in Sardinia is obviously a good omen going into Cyprus, Greece and Turkey. But we need to keep our feet on the ground. You can't carry everything over from one event to another. Every rally is different. Cyprus, for example, features slow average speeds and searing heat. We have obviously prepared for that, but so have our rivals. For me, a big question mark hangs over this event. I am naturally very hopeful, but I remain cautious..."

...to Sebastien Loeb...

Five rallies into this year's championship, you have won three events and scored 35 points, exactly as in 2004...

"For sure, it's been a good start to the season. Better even, to my eyes, than last year. In 2004, our third win, which came in Cyprus, was awarded to me after the event. This year, I scored my third win in Sardinia after a straight fight with my closest rival, just as I did in New Zealand. But I don't think my approach has changed that much. When I feel that the combination of the Xsara, my tyres and myself are in a position to win, then I push. Perhaps the difference is that I force myself more than before to increase my lead once I'm ahead in order to be less prone to the sort of unpleasant surprise I suffered in Margam in 2004..."

Your 'duel-ometer' with Petter Solberg is more balanced today...

"It's good to win ahead of Petter... Last year, when I found myself fighting with Marcus [Gronholm], I often came out on top but it was the other way round with Petter. I have never been scared to fight him head to head. I know when I put in a faultless run over a stage and when I do, if he finishes well ahead of me, then I know the only thing for us all to do is to work even harder. Perhaps that's what he's telling himself at the moment? But the table can quickly turn again. That's why we can't afford to ease up in the slightest way and that's also what's making this year's championship so interesting!"

You currently lead the championship. But that also means you will be first on the road in Cyprus...

"...and in Cyprus, being first on the road isn't easy. It can even be a big handicap on Friday's opening loop. The stages are the same as 2004 and I hope they don't cut up too much. Last year we had the impression that they were just as we had left them after two runs in 2003! As I have said before, the fact that I will serve as 'road sweeper' on the Friday implies that I am leading the championship. For that reason, I would be happy to start every event first on the road..."

...and to Francois Duval...

In 2002, you posted your first top stage time in world class rallying in Cyprus and consequently found yourself in the lead of a WRC qualifying round for the first time...

"That's true! But don't forget, I wasn't taking part in the championship and, as a result, I had a good start order. The record book also shows that I have never finished in Cyprus from four attempts, although the last three of those retirements, driving a WRC car, were for mechanical reasons. Personally, I feel comfortable over the event's twisty stages despite the terrible heat inside the car which affects all the drivers."

What does a car need to be competitive in Cyprus?

"It needs to corner well! Because of the twisty stages, you're got a handicap if your car understeers. For Sardinia, the understeer I have talked about previously had been eradicated and that's good. For Cyprus, you also need effective cooling, both for the engine and the brakes. On the subject of brakes, the trouble I had in New Zealand has been cured and I didn't have the slightest problem in Italy. Lastly, the car needs to be very strong. This is the roughest part of the championship..."

What sort of result are you looking for in Cyprus?

"A podium would be nice! In Sardinia, I made a costly mistake when I turned in a little late on a crest and stupidly lost points. I have got to stay on the road and finish. Given how competitive our car is at the moment, I should be able to keep up with the top three. And with a little luck, I could finish on the podium..."

-citroen-

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team