Back to winter! Rally Argentina, Round 8 of the 2004 calendar, marks the final event of the first half of the season and takes the Xsara WRCs of SÃ©bastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti to the sierra of the Cordoba region ...
Back to winter!
Rally Argentina, Round 8 of the 2004 calendar, marks the final event of the first half of the season and takes the Xsara WRCs of Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti to the sierra of the Cordoba region which will be in the midst of the southern hemisphere winter.
Farmers know that "all that is harvested and in the barn before winter does not fear frost", and the Citroën team is pleased with its points crop to date, including a total of 42 Constructors' points from a possible 54 scored during the recent trilogy of Mediterranean rounds in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey. The same three events saw Sébastien Loeb notch up 28 Drivers' points from a possible 30.
The Versailles-Satory-based squad has no intention of easing up its effort though, especially in view of the fact that the next round promises to be one of its most delicate challenges of the year. Pre-event testing is banned in Argentina and it was only last year that the Xsara WRCs contested the event's stages in anger for the first time.
"We have used the data we collected there in 2003 to fine-tune the basic set-up we had in Turkey which was very competitive," explains Technical Manager Jean-Claude Vaucard. "We have also taken certain features of Rally Argentina into account, including the river crossings, and have worked on the small problems encountered in Turkey, notably the engines stalling at stage starts..."
The drivers are in an optimistic mood, while Carlos Sainz says that "to do well in a rally, you have to like it". Indeed, the Spaniard adores Argentina and his success rate there is particularly impressive. Last year, spurred on by the countless Spanish-speaking spectators who chant his name football-fan fashion, he produced one of his finest performances ever on this event and could have won outright had he not collected a 1-minute penalty following a misunderstanding with his co-driver at the La Cumbre service park in-control. Even so, his stage times demonstrated how well the Xsara was adapted to the terrain.
The 2003 rally was less successful for Sébastien Loeb. But despite it being his first visit to the event, his stage times were very close to those of the top runners, a feat that prompted widespread praise. His times also echoed those of his Spanish team-mate, corroborating the technical staff's evaluation of the Xsara's potential in Argentina.
Seb, like Carlos, enjoys this rally and is delighted to be back. His strong position at the top of the Drivers' championship puts him in a positive upward spiral and, although he knows the scrap is likely to be fierce, he believes in his chances of a top result. A second consecutive win on gravel would effectively be yet another impressive exploit for the young Frenchman...
Questions to Guy Fréquelin...
The Xsaras repeated their 2003 performance in Turkey by securing first and fourth places...
"They finished in the same positions and collected the same number of points... and the joy of the team was just as intense as it was last year, although for different reasons. The victory of Carlos and Marc in 2003 was the Xsara's first success on the loose. It marked a decisive step forward, suggesting that everything was possible thereafter. Seb and Daniel's win was also a first: their first 'true' gravel win. Ever since last year's Rally Australia, we knew it was only a question of time. It's now in the bag and we are very happy for them! It was the ideal way to celebrate the 'anniversary' of Carlos' win. Concerning the progress both the team and the Xsara have made since, it is interesting to note that a year after winning thanks to the car's impeccable reliability, we were capable of winning the same event thanks to its outright speed..."
Some observers do not hesitate in citing you as favourites for the title...
"That's nice to know, but it's still far too early! In this sport, the difference between winning and not winning can sometimes hinge on details. A rock hitting the underneath of the car in the wrong place in Mexico, for example, or the rain on Day 1 in Turkey which provided a helping hand to Seb whose road position made him 'road sweeper' during the opening leg ... If we were prone to letting results go to our head, which isn't at all our style, we would only have to remember the finale in Turkey to get our feet firmly back on the ground: Seb's last-minute wheel-bearing failure, probably caused by a knock from the side, came very close to putting a frustrating end to his weekend! We are currently competing in our second full season at WRC level and there are still some events on which we are still feeling our way, as was the case in New Zealand. It's for all these reasons that I implore the team not to drop its guard, although I have no doubts concerning its motivation which has been significantly strengthened by the results of the last three rallies."
This is only the Citroën team's second participation in Rally Argentina, but you go to Villa Carlos Paz with your sights set high...
"Argentina is one of the rallies of which we have much less experience compared to our rivals. Our knowledge on the event is limited to a week of testing in 2002, when such work outside of Europe was still permitted, and to our participation in 2003. That said, last year's event went rather well for us. Carlos posted seven fastest stage times and, had it not been for a clocking-in error, he could have come away with better than second place. Meanwhile, although the rally was completely new to him, Seb confirmed the Xsara's competitiveness by posting two second fastest times and two third bests. Since then, all the teams have progressed, and so have we. The way I saw the Xsaras handle in Turkey leads me to believe that we now have a competitive base which we can fine-tune to adapt it to the different terrains visited by the championship. If we succeed in doing that in Argentina, and I hope we do, we should be in a position to fight for victory..."
Questions to Sébastien Loeb...
In retrospect, what is your analysis of your win in Turkey?
"I tend to keep my feelings to myself, but I can say that my win in Turkey gave me immense joy and, for a number of reasons, a sense of intense satisfaction. It was good to show that I am capable of winning on the loose in a straight fight so soon after 'inheriting' ten points in Cyprus. To have done so by beating the likes of Marcus [Grönholm] and Petter [Solberg] on the stages only adds to the pleasure. I knew I could do it. Daniel and I had already come second on three or four occasions and it was time to go one better. There was also a certain sense of revenge following my retirement last year, but above all the result is very promising for the future. The balance of my Xsara was very nice in Turkey... At the pace at which I drove, I felt comfortable and in total confidence with my car. There wasn't the slightest hint of understeer and I could place it exactly where I wanted. Since Cyprus, since Greece even, I clearly feel we have progressed, and that bides well for the future..."
The immediate future is Argentina. Is last year's event a pleasant or an unpleasant memory for you?
"A pleasant one, no hesitation! The scenery is so different and I love the variety of landscapes. It's a rally that's fun to drive and I'm very much looking forward to being back there. The fact that certain stages will be run in the opposite direction this time round and that some parts will be totally new to me means that I will have some 100 km of new pacenotes to make, but that won't detract from the pleasure. Getting back to last year, going off in the hanging dust sure isn't my best recollection of the event. I prefer to remember the fact that until that unfortunate incident I was setting stage times that were very close to those of the fastest drivers despite it being my first experience of the rally..."
Do you believe you can take a second consecutive win on gravel?
"Why not? The problem is that victory in Argentina seems just as possible for Marcus, Petter and Markko [Märtin], not forgetting Carlos who will practically be on home ground! There is not just one favourite, but many! The competition is very tight at the moment, with each rally being dominated by a different driver: Marcus in Cyprus, Petter in Greece, Daniel and me in Turkey. With some adjustments to its set-up, the Xsara I drove in Turkey should be competitive in Argentina. The jumps and the fords aren't a problem for the car, nor is the rougher going and its traction is now very good over the 'ribbed' portions. So it will be up to us to make the most of all that once the first loop of stages, over which we will probably play the role of 'road sweepers', is behind us..."
Questions to Carlos Sainz...
You are the driver who has the most experience of Rally Argentina. What is your opinion of the 2004 event?
"I am sure it's going to be a great rally this year. There are lots of interesting stages and the organisers have found a way for us to return to the Mina Clavero area where the scenery is simply stunning. I am delighted at the idea of doing 'Giulio Cesare' and 'El Condor' again. They are legendary stages. My only minor concern is the state in which we will find them, and we'll see that in recce. But overall, I think it's really nice to broaden the mix, to propose different stages, which means we won't have to repeat too many!"
Thirteen starts, two wins, nine podiums... second last year and you could have won... This has often been a successful rally for you. Why is that?
"I don't really know. It's always difficult to know what makes the difference between success and otherwise. I think that to get a good result, you have to enjoy an event. And Argentina is a rally I really love. They also speak my mother tongue, so I feel practically at home there! The stages and atmosphere are remarkable. I simply love being on this event..."
Do you think the Xsara you had in Turkey can win in Argentina?
"Because of the mud, my road position was not an advantage over the early stages in Turkey. But after that I was fastest in 'Kemer'. That showed I was on the pace before I was slowed by a health problem. The Xsara was very quick in Turkey and I don't see why it shouldn't be the same in Argentina. We were competitive there last year, and the Xsara has progressed a great deal since. I now feel very confident at its wheel and I think Argentina could be a very good rally for Citroën..."