Monte Carlo: Citro?n season opener preview

Citroën present as promised! Team Citroën-Total is poised to kick off its first full World Rally Championship season with a three-car entry on the Monte Carlo Rally. The trio of Xsara WRCs will be driven by Colin McRae/Derek Ringer ...

Citroën present as promised!

Team Citroën-Total is poised to kick off its first full World Rally Championship season with a three-car entry on the Monte Carlo Rally. The trio of Xsara WRCs will be driven by Colin McRae/Derek Ringer (N°17), Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (N°18) and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti (N°19).

After its progressive, two-year build-up to a full campaign as permitted by the regulations, the Versailles-based outfit has kept to the timeframe established at the time of its decision to compete in the WRC. 'We have been looking forward very much to competing in the complete championship," admits Citroën Sport Director Guy Fréquelin. "The team is very motivated and, on top of that, the entire company feels concerned by this project and is totally behind us. It's very warming to benefit from this sort of commitment!"

A relative newcomer to world class rallying, Citroën is looking to gain experience, and the arrival in its ranks of Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz stands to make a valuable contribution in this domain. Colin became the youngest driver to win the Drivers' World Championship when he took the crown in 1995 and has claimed a record 25 WRC wins in total. The statistics of Carlos' career are equally impressive: from 165 WRC starts, he has finished on the podium on 83 occasions, including 24 outright wins, plus two world titles in 1990 and 1992. The presence of these two stars alongside the promising young Sébastien Loeb, who scored a win in Germany in his very first season at WRC level, brings an undeniable touch of style to Team Citroën-Total's 2003 driver line-up.

The three Xsaras for the Monaco-based rally will feature a number of engine improvements that give a small power gain as well as enhanced acceleration performance from low engine speeds. As far as the chassis is concerned, the cars will be fitted with a new antirollbar system which features a hydraulic interconnection between the front and rear bars with a view to improving the load split between the wheels.

"Given the team we have, and given Sébastien's brilliant run on the 2002 Monte, nobody would believe us if we said we weren't hoping for a win. Like everyone, however, we know two successive Monte Carlos are rarely identical," says Guy Fréquelin. "Last year, we didn't put a foot wrong in the stages, and this year we will do our best to perform just as well."

Telefónica Movistar, Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, OZ, AIS and Citroën Financement are the partners of Team Citroën-Total in the World Rally Championship.

Questions to Guy Fréquelin.

Carlos joined you at a rather late stage. Did this affect your preparation for the Monte Carlo Rally? How are your two new drivers settling in?

"Carlos hasn't done as much testing as he perhaps might have liked and the decision to run a third car has led to a sudden increase in staff numbers. I would have preferred to have been able to give the new arrivals more time to find their marks and to the team as a whole to get accustomed to working together. As far as the settling in of Colin and Carlos is concerned, that's not proving a problem at all. I'm just delighted to see how motivated they are."

On last year's Monte Carlo Rally, your team read the stage conditions perfectly. The weather could well make this year's event much more complex.

"It's true, our operation functioned well last year, and there's no reason why that shouldn't be the case again this time round. Having said that, the going this year could well prove extremely challenging and that will complicate the job of the crews themselves. That's when experience, intuition and - sometimes - luck come into their own. Anything can happen. The calendar kicks off with the year's most complex rally, but it's the same for everyone. It's up to us to try and play our cards in the most effective way possible."

You've put together a dream team of three drivers boasting fifty WRC wins between them. Does managing such a prestigious line-up not engender a certain amount of pressure?

"Of course, the presence of drivers like Colin and Carlos does create some pressure. In return, however, the experience they bring to the table gives us added confidence. Their presence is also a big motivation booster for the team and I'm sure that working with such illustrious team-mates is going to make Sébastien progress even more quickly and spring some more surprises."

Questions to Colin McRae.

You have driven the Xsara on gravel, asphalt and snow. What is your opinion of the car on these different types of surface?

"We have carried out a number of tests since the Rally of Great Britain and my initial impressions are positive. The Xsara is effectively a nicely balanced car that is easy to drive on all surfaces."

You haven't enjoyed much success on the Monte Carlo Rally to date. Is this why it's not one of your favourite events?

"There isn't really a reason. I simply think it's a very fast rally and that it can be dangerous. You sometimes have to drive with unsuitable tyres, like running on snow for example with dry weather racers. It's because of these difficult conditions and the profile of the stages themselves that I don't like it much."

How do you see your chances of winning? Would victory change your opinion of this event?

"No, victory wouldn't make me change my mind. That said, we do stand a good chance of winning, even though there's a long list of other drivers capable of doing the same. Success on the Monte tends to be more of a team thing than a win for the driver and co-driver. Factors such as accurate weather information and good tyre choices are crucial. It's a big team effort."

Questions to Sébastien Loeb.

How did testing go? What is your impression of the car?

"We have an engine evolution, and we have worked well in testing. The car's handling has progressed and it's good. As for me, I feel more comfortable with the Xsara than I did this time last year. The 2002 Monte Carlo was only my second rally with it. Since then, a full year of testing and competition has gone by. I have gained more experience, I feel more confident and I have understood how to drive more efficiently."

The weather seems to be pointing to a fairly tricky rally. Is that good or bad news?

"Like everyone, I love driving on snow. when I'm on the right tyres. It's not always nice to find yourself on snow or even ice when you've chosen dry weather tyres because you know they are the best choice overall. Also, both the 'Prunières' and 'Plan de Vitrolles' stages are new to me, and I'm told 'Plan de Vitrolles' is very difficult. So if the weather does turn out to be mild, I wouldn't have a problem with that!"

You dominated last year's event and were fastest over the stages. Surely you must be hoping for a win this year.

"As I say, I don't know the stages of Leg 1 very well and the first day represents a significant chunk of the rally. I think it will be more difficult to win this year, but I will do my best. It didn't take me long to get over the penalty that dropped me to second last year, especially since my objective at the time was essentially to show what I was capable of, and I think I achieved that. But it's true, winning this year would have a special taste."

Questions to Carlos Sainz.

Are you sufficiently acquainted with the Xsara? What's it like to drive?

"I came into the equation late, but everyone - Citroën, Telefónica and myself - has done their utmost to make this third car happen. So I am very happy about that. I have driven the car enough to see that it has good potential on asphalt but, for the moment, I still haven't put in enough kilometres to understand it 100%. I hope to gain more confidence still in order to be quick in the rally. In any case, I am delighted to be at the start of the Monte Carlo with the Xsara."

You have a dazzling record on the Monte Carlo. What's the secret behind your success?

"The Monte Carlo is a rally you either love or you hate. It's so different from other rounds. The way you approach it is very important. Tyre choice and attitude are crucial."

What are the areas in which this year's Monte Carlo Rally is likely to be won or lost? What are your chances of victory? If you win, you will draw level with the most successful drivers ever on this event. Is that important to you?

"The key of this rally is getting tyre choice right, and the difficulty of that depends on the weather. Things are likely to be a bit simpler this year because there are only seven different stages. But if the weather does prove fickle, tyre choice promises to be important. I think I will start at a pace at which I feel confident in order to get in as many kilometres as possible. Of course, if I see a chance of winning, then I will try. And if I did win, that would be fantastic, especially since that would give me four wins in four different cars. But I'm realistic; it's going to be tough."

Facts and figures:

Total route length of the 71st running of the championship's oldest rally is 1390,03 km, including 415,02 km divided into 14 special stages.

Technical scrutineering will be held in Monaco (Route de la Piscine) on Wednesday January 22nd from 14:30 until 20:30.

The Shakedown test will take place near Sospel (Col de Castillon-Col St Jean, stage finish on the D54) on Thursday January 23rd from 08:00 until 12:00.

A ceremonial start will be held in Monaco's Casino Square on Thursday evening at 18:30.

Service for the first leg will be based at the Tallard airfield near Gap. The day features three different stages, each one to be tackled twice. These include two modified stages: 'Prunières-Embrun' (28.36 km) and 'Sélonnet-Col des Garcinets-Bréziers' (22.52 km). The leg finishes with two runs through the celebrated and challenging 'Plan de Vitrolles-Faye' test (47.27 km), the second attempt at which will be in darkness.

Leg 2 (service park: Monaco harbour side) consists of two loops of two stages: the long version of 'Col de Bleine-Les 4 Chemins-Sigale' (32.11 km) followed by 'St Antonin-Tourette du Château' (25.11 km).

The programme for Sunday's action (service park: Monaco harbour side) is two classic stages run twice each: 'Sospel-Col de Turini-La Bollène Vésubie' (32.58 km) and 'Lantosque- Col St Roch-Lucéram' (19.52 km).

Colin McRae has started the Monte Carlo eight times: 1994 (10th), 1995 (retired), 1997 (retired), 1998 (3rd), 1999 (3rd, then disqualified), 2000 (retired), 2001 (retired), 2002 (4th).

Sébastien Loeb has only two Monte Carlo starts to his name: 2001 (Saxo Kit- Car, 2nd in Class A6) and 2002 (Xsara WRC, 2nd).

Carlos Sainz has competed on thirteen previous occasions: 1989 (retired), 1990 (2nd), 1991 (1st), 1992 (2nd), 1993 (14th), 1994 (3rd), 1995 (1st), 1997 (2nd), 1998 (1st), 1999 (retired), 2000 (2nd), 2001 (2nd), 2002 (3rd).

Reminder: the 1996 Monte Carlo Rally counted towards the '2 litre' World Championship only.

The most successful drivers on the event (4 wins each) are J. Trévoux (1934, 1939, 1949, 1951), Sandro Munari (1972, 1975, 1976, 1977), Walter Röhrl (1980, 1982, 1983, 1984) and Tommi Mäkinen (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002).

Citroën has claimed two previous Monte Carlo Rally wins: in 1959 (with the ID19 of Coltelloni/Alexandre/Desrosiers) and 1966 (with the DS21 of Toivonen/Mikkander).


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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Tommi Makinen , Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Sébastien Loeb , Guy Frequelin , Derek Ringer , Marc Marti
Teams Citroën World Rally Team