A challenge of a different kind! Since the Tour of Corsica, a red flag emblazoned with CitroÃ«n's double chevron logo has been flying at the summit of world class rallying. Yet despite having sewn up both the 2004 Manufacturers' and Drivers' ...
A challenge of a different kind!
Since the Tour of Corsica, a red flag emblazoned with Citroën's double chevron logo has been flying at the summit of world class rallying. Yet despite having sewn up both the 2004 Manufacturers' and Drivers' title chases in imperious fashion in Ajaccio, the French team's hunger for success has not been totally appeased. Indeed, the Versailles-Satory based squad is as fired up as ever and has set itself the demanding target of winning the last rounds of the year, Spain and Australia.
True to his word, Guy Frequelin has chosen to given a free rein to Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti, who will be out to end the season in the top-three of the final points table, and to freshly crowned champions Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena. Both crews will therefore be free to tackle these rallies as they see fit, without the concern of having to score points.
Catalonia's smooth, fast asphalt has long been one of the Xsara's favourite hunting grounds. The Kit Car version of the French coupe won the '2-litre' category here in 1998 before surprising the WRC world the following year with outright victory ahead of the World Rally Cars. Two years later, the Xsara caused another stir in Spain, celebrating its maiden outing in WRC trim with fastest times on 10 of the 17 stages covered.
From the team's five starts in Spain to date, it has enjoyed four excellent years, including three in which it dominated, yet it has but one win to show for its efforts. And that score, although a source of added motivation, also encourages caution. Every year effectively presents its own challenge. The switch to an October date, for example, has complicated the picture by bringing the prospect of potentially unsettled weather into the equation, while the team's rivals will also be keen to thwart the World Champions and, as seen in Germany and Corsica, the machines of Markko Martin and Francois Duval are particularly quick on asphalt...
As a result, the coming weekend will be far from easy, although inasmuch as securing the two titles in Corsica was by no means a foregone conclusion, Citroën Sport has prepared for the Spanish round with care. A test session near the rally's epicentre, Vic, enabled it to fine-tune the car's basic Catalonia set-up thanks to a number of small refinements, while Seb and Carlos profited from the session to evaluate the different tyres developed by the team's longstanding partner Michelin...
The scene is therefore set for what promises to be a fierce and spectacular battle which will hopefully end in success for the French outfit so that the celebrations on Carlos Sainz's on home soil will be as joyous as those that followed Seb's run in Corsica...
Questions to Guy Frequelin
How was life for you following your success in Corsica?
"I have been especially impressed by the enthusiasm our Manufacturers and Drivers double has generated. It seems to have been appreciated by a lot of people. We have been submerged in fax and e-mail messages and Seb even received a personal fax from French President Jacques Chirac who asked him to pass on his congratulations to everyone in the team. The Group and the entire Citroën network - from the different regional management to the agent's of the marque - have also been in touch and that has naturally added to our pleasure. I am personally delighted that Citroën has contributed in its own way to enhancing public awareness of the sport that is our passion, rallying!"
For the last two rounds of the season, you have decided to give your crews a free rein...
"That's correct. On Sunday evening in Ajaccio, I told them that I have revised my usual objective. I usually tell them to drive as quickly as possible without leaving the road. In Spain and Australia, they will be free to go as fast as they want, without hurting themselves. The Monte Carlo is barely three months away... That said, this freedom also all but implies that they will have to be competitive..."
Is your desire to win the year's two remaining events a means for you to keep up the pressure?
"This objective comes from the team itself, and I totally support it. We still want to win and the fact that we had victory snatched from our grasp in Spain at the last minute last year is an added source of motivation. We will be careful however to make sure that the interest of the media does not unsettle the preparation of our drivers. Technically, we have a good basic set-up for Catalonia. But as usual, the unknowns include how much our rivals have progressed, the weather and the fact that, like everyone else, we will be running the same engine we used in Corsica. I don't know whether we will win, but I can guarantee that we will do everything in our power to try..."
Did Carlos Sainz's decision to put an end to his career come as a surprise to you? What do you think of his choice?
"I wasn't really surprised. Carlos warned me a few months ago that he was giving the matter serious thought. Like everyone in the team, I would have liked to have continued a little longer together. But I respect his choice and I can only thank him for all he has contributed to Citroën Sport. At the delicate time when we were beginning our first full assault on the World Championship, he helped point us in the right direction and came up with some good options. I also owe him a great deal for the invaluable support he has given Sebastien. He helped Seb 'come of age'. Carlos is a great driver, a genuine star and a true gentleman!"
Questions to Sebastien Loeb
A week after clinching the title in Corsica, how does it feel to be World Champion?
"It's been a moment to savour despite the considerable demands which in themselves suggest we have achieved something big. We have accomplished our mission and done what all rally drivers dream of. When I saw that I could match Carlos and Colin McRae on the loose, I knew it was possible. I have now done it, and it all happened so quickly because I was fortunate to be in the best team..."
What did you feel when you learnt that Carlos intends to put a stop to his career?
"I feel quite sad. I don't know if it's possible, but it would be nice if he could continue to work with us in some way. I would understand of course if he chose to just stay at home. He has nothing more to prove. He has had the best career anyone could imagine and has decided to stop after contributing to Citroën's second Manufacturers' title. He has played a major role in the fact that we are champions. Working with him has been a true pleasure for me. There were never any secrets or tension between us. He did everything he could to help me, including some very sound advice. He is experienced, intelligent and honest, the ideal team-mate...!"
What is your opinion of Catalonia and its stages?
"Globally, the stages are wider, smoother and faster than in Corsica and many of the apexes tend to cut up so that the car is frequently riding on the sump guard. It's a nice event that went well for me when I was driving in Super 1600 and I came close to winning outright last year. I feel comfortable on these roads which are more akin to circuit racing. Curiously, though, I always find the recce quite difficult. Happily, there are only thirty or so kilometres that are new this year. As far as the weather goes, we coped well last year. If the conditions are again damp and cold, I don't see that being a particular problem..."
Guy Frequelin has confirmed that he has given you a free rein. What does that change for you, before the rally and during it?
"The fact that we have achieved our objectives takes some of the pressure off us. Guy's decision has removed the little pressure that remained. Psychologically, it means you can switch to maximum attack and go for victory from the word go, without having other considerations at the back of your mind. Markko Martin and Francois Duval were very quick in Corsica. However, given the pace we deliberately chose, it is difficult to say whether we could have matched them had we pushed harder. That said, it's not my style to enter a corner with two chances in three of going off. I will drive at the limit of what is reasonable and see how it goes..."
Questions to Carlos Sainz
How do you feel now you have announced your decision to retire at the end of the season?
"It's something of a special moment. A little difficult. I have thought long and hard about my decision and I have no intention of coming back on it. There are moments when I feel a little sad, when I remember all the joy I have had in rallying and when I think that will soon all be over. At other times, I think of all the things I am now going to be able to do with my family and friends. For the moment, you could say I have mixed feelings..."
What will you remember of the 2004 Tour of Corsica?
"It was the perfect rally. We did what was expected of us and made sure of another Manufacturers' title, while Sebastien clinched his first world crown. I still remember how I felt when that happened to me. It's a day you play back to yourself all your life. I am pleased to see that Seb is so happy. It was an emotional moment and I shared the joy with everyone in the team. For sure, this year's Tour of Corsica will always hold a special place in my memory."
Your podium finish rate in Catalonia is half that of your overall career, while your retirement rate here is nearly double. Is there a Spanish equivalent to the proverb; 'nobody is prophet in their own country'?
"There are effectively one or two proverbs that mean pretty much the same thing. I have to admit that my home round has not been my successful event and, strangely, I have no explanation for that. It a rally I like, I enjoy its stages and I always benefit from huge support... That said, even though my Catalonia Rally record isn't excellent, I have still won it twice..."
And the same question we asked Sebastien: Guy Frequelin has decided given you a free rein. How will that change your approach to your home round?
"It will be much easier. When you have a free hand, you can take more risks and try to drive even faster. But it's still important to be at the finish. My objective will be to end the season on the highest note possible. Yes, I want to win in Catalonia!"