Rally Australia: Citroen preview

Originally-From: CITROEN Press <citroen_press@xmr3.com> Citroen out to conclude in style After the joy of securing their fifth world title* in three full seasons at the highest level, the three-times Manufacturers' World Champions* head...

Originally-From: CITROEN Press <citroen_press@xmr3.com>

Citroen out to conclude in style

After the joy of securing their fifth world title* in three full seasons at the highest level, the three-times Manufacturers' World Champions* head for Australia with the pressure off in their bid to wrap up their record-breaking season in style.

Citroen Total has sent two Xsara WRCs to Perth for its usual crews Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Francois Duval/Sven Smeets, while Team Kronos Racing will run the privately-entered Xsaras of Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor and Xavier Pons/Carlos Del Barrio.

The delightful Western Australia capital Perth hosts the event once again to the soothing, majestic backdrop of the Swan River, with two principal centres of activity: the single service park in Langley Park, which sits on the river's right bank, and the Gloucester Park trotting course, home of the 'Perth City Super Special' which drivers will contest no fewer than six times in total!

Another of the Australian round's famous hallmarks is the surface of its stages which feature small, marble-like stones that form an unstable top-coating. Their colour ranges from yellow to dark ochre, while their size varies between that of a garden pea to that of a playground marble. The combination of this loose surface, the high average speeds reached by the drivers and the proximity of the trees in the forest stages makes this one of the toughest challenges of the entire championship.

For the driver running first on the road, who will this year be Sebastien Loeb on Day 1, the situation is complicated -- especially in the dry -- by the need to cut a line through the superficial layer of 'ball-bearings'. "If there was an effective way of countering this phenomenon, I think we would have found it by now," quips Citroen Sport's Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "Otherwise, regarding the set-up of the Xsara for this event, we now have three years of experience behind us and we came away from each of our last two visits with a top result. For the fast, narrow, loose stages, traction and steering precision are essential to help the drivers stay on the clear lines left by the preceding cars. New this time round will be the Michelin Z BTO tyre which hasn't let us down in the slightest this year, whatever the terrain. We are counting on it a lot, especially since it is now spring in Australia and ground temperatures could be quite high..."

The 2005 route is similar to last year's, with visits to the Dwellingup region, to the Mundaring/Helena River area east of Perth and to the Sotico Complex, famous for its spectacular jumps. With three years' worth of pacenotes on file for this fixture, Daniel Elena has calculated that if all the little sections are put end to end, this year's event features just 2 km of new stages! Numerous fine-tuning corrections will doubtlessly be made during recce, however, especially to those notes that date back to 2002. The speed of the double World Champions, who won here outright in 2004, has progressively increased since their first trip to Perth. This time, the pressure will be off and, like their team-mates Francois Duval and Sven Smeets, Seb and Daniel have been given carte blanche by Guy Frequelin, so there is every chance of seeing some thrilling action this weekend in the forests of Western Australia...

Questions to Guy Frequelin...

In all your time in the sport, have you ever experienced such a rewarding weekend as you did in Catalonia?
"Probably not! As a driver, I was obviously delighted each time I won, but the joy and buzz I feel as Team Principle are altogether different. This is something you share with the whole team and the whole company. I can only recall a couple of moments that were as emotional as the finish of the Rally Catalunya: our first win on the Dakar -- my first success as a Team Principle and, on top of that, in the biggest rally-raid of them all -- and perhaps our Paris-Peking win because of its symbolic value for Citroen as a modern-day equivalent to the celebrated 'Croisière Jaune'. However, the way we swept the table in Catalonia -- winning outright, clinching the WRC and JWRC titles and the superb result of Xevi Pons -- will remain etched in my mind for ever. And all this came just after the announcement of our return in 2007. I couldn't have been happier!"

After an occasion such as that, how do you set about motivating the team when there's little else to play for and when the one remaining event takes place more than 14,000 km from Versailles-Satory?
"Our motivation is the same as ever; like any team involved in competition, we want to win. Last year, after learning that our WRC programme was going to be halted at the end of 2005, as well as being deeply affected by Carlos Sainz's accident during recce and his last-minute withdrawal from the event, the team still dug deep to clinch its seventh win of the season. This year, we travel to Perth with a freer mind and there is no reason why our approach should be any different. I would even go as far as to say that Rally Australia marks the beginning of our 2007 campaign, so it will also be case of building for the future..."

Citroen has obtained its third consecutive Manufacturers' title. Does that mean your two crews will have carte blanche in Perth?
"Essentially, yes. That said, I will ask them to take care not to hurt themselves. The Australian stages are very fast and unstable, with trees often very close. If in addition to that we can avoid damaging the cars, it would be even better. That too is part and parcel of managing a budget..."

...to Sebastien Loeb...

Citroen has announced that it will return to the World Rally Championship in 2007. What is your reaction to that news now that your future is clear?
"Above all, I am delighted for the team that Citroen has taken the decision we were all hoping for. I am also personally relieved. It means I ticked the right box when I took the risk of waiting. I am also thrilled about the prospect of contributing to the development of the C4 WRC practically from the outset. When Guy Frequelin gave me a Xsara WRC for the 2001 Sanremo Rally, the car was already very quick on asphalt. This time I will be able to watch the new 'baby' grow up. Not only that, but I will also be one of the people who raise it. It's a responsibility and an exciting challenge that is new to me... I can't wait to get started!"

Before that, there is your extraordinary season to finish in Perth...
"To be honest, the idea of the long trip out to Perth after taking in Great Britain, Japan, Corsica and Catalonia in the space of barely a month and a half doesn't exactly make me jump for joy. Having said that, once the rally gets going, it will be business as usual and I am looking forward to driving there and I will be out to win. If we don't, it won't be a catastrophe, but I intend to give it my best shot. When I finished 2nd in Australia two years ago it marked a big step in my career. After that, I was considered to be a potential winner everywhere. I won outright in 2004, so defending that win is another very good reason to go for victory again this time round."

We haven't mentioned the phenomenon of 'road sweeping' duty on Day 1 for some time. In Australia, however, it's a topic that can't really be ignored...
"These past two years, running first on the road has been less of a handicap because of rain prior to the start which helped limit the damage. There are a number of different scenarios which can vary from stage to stage. At times, you have to cut a line through the famous top-coating of marbles, at others you come across clear lines left by the cars during recce. But even then, it is difficult to stick to them when you're pushing hard. To help boost morale, it is often said that the drivers running second and third on the road are more or less in the same boat, but sometimes it only takes the line cleared by one car -- namely mine -- for them to be able to get down to the road's hard-packed base. The split times show that we take a hiding but there is nothing we can do about it. For sure, it's irritating. But the danger is allowing that irritation to lead you into doing something stupid. The first leg in Australia is therefore an object lesson in patience. You just have to drive as well as you can on the Friday and then take stock at the end of the day to see what sort of result is realistic..."

...and to Francois Duval...

You competed for the first time in 2001 when you finished 3rd in Group N. What were your first impressions of the country and the stages?
"Fantastic! I had never seen a kangaroo before. It was huge fun and I had a great week. Recce went well and, as a Group N runner, we started the stages after a high number of cars had already been through. The ground had therefore been cleared so we weren't faced with the traditional problem posed by the Australian marbles."

You have driven a WRC car in this event three times now, and last year you finished on the podium...
"In 2002, I retired after hitting a small tree with my door. In 2003, I was slowed by hydraulic problems I think. Last year, everything went well. In a WRC car, the stages are sometimes very slippery but I have often benefited from a favourable road order. This time, I will be fifth on the road on the Friday I think. It will probably still be a little difficult and very slippery. A good position, in Australia, is at least tenth on the road."

Guy Frequelin has decided to give his drivers a free rein. What sort of result do you hope to achieve?
"I haven't set myself a specific target. It's not an event on which I think I can fight to win. My intention will be to show that I am capable of posting some good times and that I can keep the car on the road..."


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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team