Rally Catalunya: Citroen preview

Citroën hoping for the title Citroën is hoping that Round 15 of the 16-round FIA World Rally Championship will turn out to be a decisive step in its bid to secure a third consecutive Manufacturers' title. To this end, the French team has...

Citroën hoping for the title

Citroën is hoping that Round 15 of the 16-round FIA World Rally Championship will turn out to be a decisive step in its bid to secure a third consecutive Manufacturers' title. To this end, the French team has entered two Xsara WRCs for the two-times World Champions* Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and their Belgian team-mates François Duval/Sven Smeets.

For the 41st running of the Rally Catalunya - Costa Brava Rallye de España, the event marks a major shift and its new name, RallyRACC Catalunya -- Costa Daurada, reveals one the principal changes: its move away from the Costa Brava of northern Catalunya to the golden beaches of the Costa Daurada. Lloret de Mar, the town which has hosted the event for decades accordingly passes the baton to Salou, near Tarragona, taking the rally's base from 80 km north-east of Barcelona to a new location 110 km south-west of the Catalonian capital.

The region in which the stages are organised has obviously also changed, with the organisers trading the region of Vic for the mountains inland of Tarragona. The weekend's single service park is based at the Universal Studios theme park in Port Aventura. In fact this isn't entirely new territory for the rally since the Spanish round had always included a southern loop every year until 2002, and Port Aventura served as served park on two occasions in the past.

Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon remembers that the stages at the time alternated between wide, smooth-surfaced roads and narrower portions over a less even surface. "We have no intention of re-inventing the wheel," he says. "The set-up for the Xsaras will be the basic asphalt package that has worked so well so far and which we have further fine-tuned thanks to the variants we came up with following our testing for this event in September."

The objective of the Versailles-Satory team in Spain is to try to wrap up the Manufacturers' championship in its attempt to add a third crown to the titles it won in 2003 and 2004. Its current cushion of 30 points at the top of the provisional standings effectively puts it in a very comfortable position.

In its bid to take the title, the team will be able to count on a number factors, from the current competitiveness of the Xsara/Michelin package and the sparkling form of Loeb/Elena to the fact that François Duval led during last year's visit to Spain. But in order to be able to capitalise on these strengths, it will first be necessary to get a firm grip on the tyre/weather situation, an equation which includes one important unknown factor: Citroën's three previous visits to the Tarragona region were all in spring...

Questions to Guy Fréquelin...

A win and a stage-win grand slam in Corsica... You must be delighted...
"I'm above all delighted with our win. I wasn't interested in the fastest stage time grand slam. I must admit that I wasn't really in favour of Seb and Daniel going for that. That said, I didn't tell them not to try. They knew what they were doing, and I knew that they wouldn't take any unnecessary risks. On the other hand, I am absolutely delighted that they won. Just as I did back in 1999, when Philippe Bugalski and Jean-Paul Chiaroni won with the Xsara Kit Car, I couldn't help feeling a little national pride: it's a French car and a French crew -- OK, Daniel is from Monaco, but he lives in Mâcon -- running on French tyres in the colours of a French fuel company... That's nice, no? But I'm especially pleased for Seb and Daniel. They wanted so much to win the Tour of Corsica! Seeing them so happy made me even happier still..."

What do you remember of the former southern loop of the Catalunya Rally which is now the epicentre of the event?
"My principal recollections are associated with tyres. In 1999, we were able to run medium compound rubber in the very long stage with the Xsara Kit Car. That caused something of an upset because the surface was very punishing for the WRC cars, even though they were on hard compound tyres. When we joined in later with our own WRC car, we saw the huge demands the roads made on the tyres from a different perspective. I also remember the insides of the corners posing a problem because of the big step formed by the difference in the level of the road surface and that of the verges which caused the cars to rub on their underbody protection. But that was all three years ago and I am looking forward to see what the organisers have concocted for us this year..."

With a lead of 30 points in the championship, Citroën is in a strong position in its bid to win the Manufacturers' title. Do you intend to play it defensively or aggressively?
"When you are this close to your objective, you have no right to fail. It might look easy, but we will need to be as vigilant and as focused as ever. It's a situation that Sébastien is capable of handling. He will choose his own pace and then take stock to see how we stand. I have no need to put a leash on him. It's obviously a bit more complex in the case of François. His highly positive run of three rallies in a row came to a halt in Corsica. I will ask him to drive as he sees fit and to concentrate on getting his confidence back..."

...to Sébastien Loeb...

At what moment did you think a grand slam of fastest stage times was possible on your way to taking your first win in Corsica?
"The idea came gradually. I really wanted to win so I pushed hard from Day 1 before lifting a little. By that, I mean I drove carefully over the narrower, rougher, slippery portions. I took special care when braking because that's when it's easy to get caught out. But when the roads were wide, fast and clear, I continued to push. The Xsara is quick and easy to drive when you run at your own speed. Maintaining a fast pace also enables you to stay focused. The closer we got to the finish, the more Daniel and I thought it would be nice if we could win all the stages. It was a little challenge we were able to pull off without taking any undue risks thanks to the split times which enabled us to adopt just the right pace..."

Two of the very rare 'offs' you have had in your career were in Catalunya, in 1999 and 2002. You narrowly failed to win in 2003 and you retired while leading twelve months ago. Do you like the Catalunya Rally?
"Don't forget: I also took my first win in the World Championship in Spain with the Saxo Super 1600! No, it's a rally I like a great deal. I don't judge how much I like an event or otherwise by the number of problems I have had on it. You can't blame the terrain for your mistakes. I have to admit that I can't remember much about the stages that used to make up the southern loop. For me, Catalunya is all about nice, wide roads that you can drive as you want. Cornering lines are very important; it's a bit like circuit racing in a way. In fact, I'm looking forward to putting into practice a few of the things I picked up during testing for the Le Mans 24 Hours. I only hope there aren't too many of the cut-up apexes we regularly found further north..."

Will you be looking to score your tenth win of the season?
"Of course. In any case, given our current successful run, the strength of the team, the fact that the Xsara and our tyres couldn't be more competitive, nobody would believe me if I said I wasn't hoping to win. So, yes, we will try. It's an asphalt rally and, even though the Spanish stages are different to those of Germany and Corsica, the fundamentals are still pretty much the same. We are aware of course that we have some work to finish off in the Manufacturers' championship too. We really want the team to keep the title, so we won't do anything reckless. But a win would effectively be nice..."

...and to François Duval...

What is your analysis of the Tour of Corsica?
"I got off to a difficult start when my suspension was set up too hard. We went softer and that produced a big improvement and then my brake problems were cured. I would have loved to have reached the finish for Citroën. If I had managed to hold on to 4th, Citroën would have made sure of the Manufacturers' title..."

You competed on the stages in the Tarragona region driving a Super 1600 car in 2001 and 2002. What do you remember of them?
"Nothing at all. In any case, my car then was nothing like what I drive today. Even if there had been the odd bit of stage that was the same as back then, my notes would be of no use today. The roads have been resurfaced, so it will be a case of starting from a clean sheet again."

What sort of result will you looking for in Spain?
"First of all, I hope I will feel better physically. That should be OK. I drove during the team's pre-Catalunya tests and I think my car will be to my liking and competitive from the start. I was quite competitive on the stages further north last year, so I don't see why I shouldn't be competitive again this time round. I will be looking for a good result to make sure that Citroën wraps up the Manufacturers' title here in Spain..."


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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team