JWRC: Citroen Rally Sardinia preview

Rally d'Italia Sardegna (May 18-21) The first gravel outing of 2006 for the Citroen C2 S1600 Italy's round of the JWRC is in reality the second loose encounter of 2006. However, the low number of competitors (four) present in Argentina makes this...

Rally d'Italia Sardegna (May 18-21) The first gravel outing of 2006 for the Citroen C2 S1600 Italy's round of the JWRC is in reality the second loose encounter of 2006. However, the low number of competitors (four) present in Argentina makes this event with eighteen runners the championship's first true clash on gravel of the year.

Four of the series' five C2 Super 1600 drivers nominated the Sardinian fixture on their programme, including Brice Tirabassi/Jacques-Julien Renucci (winners in Corsica and 5t h in the current standings) and Julien Pressac/Gilles de Turckheim (13t h ) whose cars are run by PH Sport. Czechs Martin Prokop/Jan Tomanek, who won the Spanish round and who are currently 7t h in the championship, will be present with their Jipocar Racing-attended car, while Prinz Rallye Technik (PRT) will watch over the C2 of Aaron Burkart/Tanja Geilhausen.

It was a year ago in Sardinia that the C2 Super 1600 made its world class debut on gravel after an exploratory outing on the PT Rali de Portugal. Citroen's S1600 contender obtained a superb close-formation finish on the Mediterranean island, with Kris Meeke's 3rd place compounding Dani Sordo's excellent win. Kris will not be present in Sardinia this time round however since he has chosen instead to nominate his home round, Wales Rally GB, the final event of the 2006 calendar.

This means Citroen's chances will essentially be defended by a line-up of trailblazers this weekend, since only Martin Prokop and Aaron Burkart have previously competed in the Italian event. Happily for these 'rookies', more than half the total competitive distance will be new, a factor which promises to counter some of the disadvantage of not knowing the terrain. Only in part though, for previous experience is always valuable, if only when it comes to taking pacenotes and hitting the ideal pace...

With two rounds already under their belts, and with three to come after Sardinia, eight of the current top-ten will take the start in Olbia grouped within just eight points. The top-eight naturally includes the four winners of the four events contested to date, namely Per-Gunnar Andersson, Martin Prokop, Brice Tirabassi and Guy Wilks for whom a second win would clearly give them a valuable edge in the series in which the points have so far been fairly evenly distributed.

At the same time, drivers like Andersson and Wilks, who have opted to skip the next encounter in Germany, will be keen to pull out the sort of gap that would allow them to bide their time until Finland without too much stress. But their rivals, led by Brice Tirabassi and Martin Prokop, have every intention of scuppering those plans.

"I think we can look forward to a pretty fierce scrap in Sardinia," says Citroen Sport's Customer Competition Manager Yves Matton. "That said, this is a tough event for the small front-wheel drive cars which suffered a great deal from punctures last year, so it could be a bit of a lottery. But that's something you've just got to live with and try to play as smartly as possible to pick up the top prize!"

What the drivers say...

Brice Tirabassi
Second season in the JWRC. Junior World Rally Champion in 2003.

When was the last time you drove a Super 1600 car on gravel?
"With the exception of our pre-Sardinia testing, my most recent experience on the loose dates back to the 2003 JWRC. I can still remember how difficult it was doing the stages with our front-wheel drive cars after the WRC runners had been through and the permanent fear we had of picking up a puncture. You've got to find the ideal pace enables you to minimise the risk of puncturing and also guarantee your chances of reaching the finish. And that's not easy, especially when that ideal pace is different for every stage and can even change several times in the course of the same stage. From what I am told, punctures are fairly common in Sardinia ! If you do pick one up, the aim is to keep time loss to a minimum by changing the wheel as speedily as possible, and that's something we practice." How did testing go?

"I was keen to drive the C2 Super 1600 on gravel which is the type of surface I grew up on. We did two sessions, one of which was in Alès, in the south of France, where the technical staff has good benchmarks after its work there last year. Everything went well, I believe, and we essentially focused on optimising traction which we will fine-tune during shakedown. Personally, I feel increasingly comfortable with the car and I'm in great shape, so I can't wait to get started!"

It promises to be a close fight...
"This will be our first face-to-face contest with 'Pigi' Andersson and Guy Wilks, although I did compete against them in 2003. They are strong opponents who now know the championship very well. It will be important to try to finish ahead of them which, I suppose, equates to wanting to win. It's a tough challenge but we will just have to go for it..."

Julien Pressac
Winner of the 2005 Citroen C2 Rallye Challenge. First season in the JWRC.

What is your experience of gravel?
"In 2003, I took part in the 'Terre de l'Auxerrois' in France with a Super 1600 car. It was only my second ever rally. The same year, I also competed in the Rallye de Paris. But I can't remember much about either event. Nothing, in any case, that could be of any use to me today. On the other hand, my season with the Saxo T4 in 2004 was extremely useful. Amongst other things, it taught me how to take pacenotes in just a single pass through the stages. The JWRC allows two passes, so I now get to check my notes, something I was never able to do in the French Championship. My year with the T4 also enabled me to accustom myself to the way grip changes from hard-packed dirt, to sand, to gravel and all the different types of surface you can come across on loose events. Last year, I contested two French Championship rallies in a WRC car, but that was more a case of learning the car than learning the surface!"

More than half of this year's Rally Italia Sardegna is new. Is that good for 'rookies' like you?
"Of course it is. In fact none of the stages are identical to last year's. Even in the case of those that are fairly similar, there are portions that have changed, either at the beginning, in the middle or towards the end. So I suppose everyone will be starting their notes again from scratch. That said, the guys who have already been to Sardinia will have an advantage early on while we newcomers endeavour to find the right pace that will enable us to steer clear of punctures. We picked up quite a few during testing because I wanted to get a feel for just how hard you can push over the rocks. But everything went very well and I feel very comfortable with the car. It's quite strange when you think that I come from a racing background, but I've always felt at ease on the loose."

You have said in the past that you like to set yourself a target. This far into the championship, however, you must have had a chance to sit back and analyse the situation, no?
"It's true that aiming for such or such a finish on an event where the result could well be decided by punctures has a bit of a random side to it. That said, it's also true that my blank scorecard in Catalonia and my puncture in Corsica, which possibly cost me a podium finish, mean we have absolutely got to finish in the points. We will therefore have to do our best to stay out of trouble and avoid falling into the traps that are part and parcel of this event. If we succeed in doing that, maybe we can make it into the top five. And I would definitely be happy with that!"


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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Guy Wilks , Kris Meeke , Brice Tirabassi , Jan Tomanek , Martin Prokop , Aaron Burkart , Tanja Geilhausen , Yves Matton
Teams Citroën World Rally Team