Citroen, Loeb and Sordo ready for the fight After a brief but thrilling escapade on gravel in New Zealand, the 2007 World Rally Championship returns to asphalt for the twelfth round of the season in Spain where Citroen Sport has entered C4 WRCs...
Citroen, Loeb and Sordo ready for the fight
After a brief but thrilling escapade on gravel in New Zealand, the 2007 World Rally Championship returns to asphalt for the twelfth round of the season in Spain where Citroen Sport has entered C4 WRCs for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Marti.
Despite taking place seven months later in the year, the format of the 2007 event is strikingly similar to that of 2006. The host town is once more the Costa Daurada resort of Salou and the service park again sets up camp in the Port Aventura theme park. Meanwhile, the majority of the stages are identical to those that featured last year and will take crews high into the sierra near Reus where they promise to attract the usual large, enthusiastic crowds.
Citroen's drivers view the Rally Catalunya as the 2007 season's first true sealed surface fixture and are looking forward to the challenge. "OK, the weather was pretty mild for the Monte Carlo Rally but it was still a highly specific event and was made particularly complex by the wintry road conditions," says Seb.
"Germany?" queries Dani. "You sometimes have to look hard for the asphalt! Spain is the year's first real sealed surface event."
That doesn't make the Spanish round any easier, however, as Citroen Sport's Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon observes: "The Rally Catalunya is a genuine asphalt event, but it has its own special features, such as its smooth tarmac and the hard cornering dictated by the stages. The apexes also tend to cut up and a significant amount of dirt is dragged onto the road for the second pass by the repeated cutting of corners. Hopefully, the combination of Citroen Sport's experience and the skill of our crews will enable us to find the ideal set-up and technical solutions for this special challenge."
"We will need to hit the ground running," says Sebastien Loeb. "The pace is usually very fast and it can be difficult to pull out a real gap, so it will be important to be able to push from the word go. The Citroen C4 WRC was very competitive on the Monte in January, and again in August in Germany. Hopefully, that trend will continue over the Rally Catalunya's smooth stages."
The Rally Catalunya clearly has a special taste for Spaniard Dani Sordo. "Competing on home ground, in front of home fans, family and friends is always nice," he smiles. "That said, it can mean extra pressure, too, because you don't want to disappoint. I am fully conscious of the stakes regarding Citroen and Sebastien. I will do everything I can to help Seb and that means doing as well as I can against his main rival."
"We have won our last two visits to Spain and the new C4 WRC has already given us two wins on asphalt," explains Guy Frequelin. "That probably makes us favourites, yet that would be forgetting such crucial parameters as the preponderant role weather can play and the progress our rivals have made. We consequently go to Catalonia with a great deal of caution and humility. There are a number of factors in Citroen Sport's favour, such as the promise shown by the C4 both in testing and on previous rounds and also the speed of our two crews on asphalt. We are fully aware of all that and we are fired up and ready for battle to begin. At the same time, however, we know it won't be easy and that the fight promises to be as fierce as ever..."
Three tenths of a second really isn't very much. How easy is to accept being defeated by such a close margin?
"I think we will remember the fight in New Zealand between Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and their respective co-drivers for a long, long time to come. They have all become accustomed to close fights over the years, but the ferocity of their duel has reached a level that has never previously been seen in the WRC. I don't like bringing luck into it, but it has to be said that Sebastien and Daniel were unfortunate in New Zealand when rain began to fall on two occasions on the Sunday just as they were starting a stage. That clearly didn't help."
It must be more frustrating to finish that close to the winner than to finish, say, three minutes adrift. Can we expect the result in New Zealand to boost your motivation for the remainder of the season?
"It's true; it wasn't easy, but that's part of the beauty of our sport. A gap of just three tenths of a second after 350km of stages and more than three hours of against-the-clock competition is exceptional. We would obviously have preferred the gap to be in our favour but that's all behind us now, and I don't think that either our drivers or anyone else in the team needs their motivation boosting. We know where we stand in the championship and we are aware of what we need to do between now and the end of the season. Sebastien has to win each time out and Dani will need to do his best to split Seb and Marcus as often as possible. Who wouldn't be motivated with goals like that?"
Citroen has gone well in Spain over the years with the Xsara Kit-Car and the Xsara WRC. Do you feel you have a reputation to live up to? Is the team ready?
"It is true that we have often gone well in Spain and I don't need to remind you that the event takes place in what is a very important market for the brand. The culture and experience we have acquired over the years on asphalt in the French Championship comes in very useful for the Rally Catalunya stages, whether they are to the north or south of Barcelona. It would be nice to add to our record this year."
Have you managed to put New Zealand and that gap of just three tenths of a second behind you?
"It's not my style to dwell on things and I have to say that the result in New Zealand won't be my worst memory of the year. I prefer to be beaten by a small gap like that than by a minute without understanding why, or without having been able to mount a real challenge. My fight with Marcus Gronholm in New Zealand was exceptionally fierce and one of those moments that make you realise why you enjoy rallying so much. You have to remember the way the event unfolded, too; we were on the pace throughout, except when we weren't on the ideal tyres or when we were the only ones to hit rain on the final day. The Citroen C4 WRC was remarkably competitive and that points to the fact that all the work the team has put in is paying off. We know we have the potential to fight for victory on every one of the remaining rounds and, given our situation in the championship, that's very important."
You have won your last two visits to Catalonia, and the C4 has already scored two wins on asphalt this year. Do you start as favourites? Why are you so successful on sealed surfaces?
"It would be wrong to say that we are only competitive on asphalt. We have been successful on the loose, too, not only in the past but also this year. Why are we so competitive on asphalt? I don't think there's any secret; and if ever there was one we would probably keep it to ourselves for a few more years! Maybe it's because the Finns, who always manage to drive on the limit on gravel, have more trouble on asphalt, whereas it's easier and comes more naturally to me."
What is your opinion of the Rally Catalunya and what will your objective be this time round?
"It's always nice to be back in Spain. It's a great rally with excellent stages that call for a circuit driving style which is something you don't find on other asphalt events. There is lots of hard cornering and you need to concentrate to make sure you keep to the ideal line. On the other hand, I'm less of a fan of the deep ruts that we find on the inside of certain corners second time round. You can't avoid them if you want to stay on the best line, but it's not something I like. The ruts can be quite deep and you can take a big jolt as you re-join the road. That can also damage the car, a rim or the tyres. Our objective will be to try to win and hope that our rivals succeed in splitting us and Marcus."
With hindsight, how do you view your performance in New Zealand?
"There were some positive things, especially on the Sunday when I succeeded in holding position under pressure from Petter Solberg. True, we were only battling for sixth place and I can't content myself with that. I probably left New Zealand with a more favourable impression in 2006. This year I didn't manage to find the same feeling I remember having after my first visit. Not everywhere, at least. Perhaps my expectations were too high and perhaps I failed to realise that this is an event which places the accent on driver skill and where you need experience to feel totally at home. You can't ignore that."
The 2007 calendar features two back-to-back asphalt rounds in Spain and Corsica. Is that a prospect you like? What are the Rally Catalunya's main characteristics?
"I have to say that I like the idea of getting back to asphalt, on top of that on home soil. That said, I enjoy gravel more and more. I have made good progress on the loose since the start of the year, although I still have a great deal to learn, as New Zealand showed. I think the Rally Catalunya's move south from Lloret to Salou was a good thing. The stages are faster and the grip is excellent. What hasn't changed, however, is the high standard of the organisation by the RACC and the enthusiasm of the spectators who I hope will be out in numbers supporting us again."
What is your objective?
"I will endeavour to finish ahead of Mikko Hirvonen and, above all, Marcus Gronholm. The best way Marc Marti and I can help Sebastien and Daniel is by depriving their rivals of points. We know it won't be easy but I hope I will be able to profit from my good feeling on asphalt, the potential of the C4 WRC and the work everyone at Citroen Sport has put in to make the car so competitive."
The 2007 Rally Catalunya in brief
* This will be the 43rd running of the event that was first organised in 1916, although it will only be the 17th time it has counted towards the World Rally Championship.
* After being based in Lloret de Mar, north of Barcelona, for many years, the event has been run out of the Costa Daurada resort Salou, around 100km to the south, for the past two years. For the third year running, the Port Aventura theme park will host the event's main facilities. The service park is situated 103km from Barcelona Airport.
* The total length of the 2007 event is 1,359.96km, including 352.87km divided into 18 stages (10 different ).
* Spain is in the same time zone as continental Europe (CET). The local currency is the Euro.
* The engines of the two Citroen C4 WRCs are new. For the first time, the engine and the chassis will be sealed together for Spain, Corsica and Ireland. All three events will consequently be contested by same cars. On the other hand, the front and rear subframes and steering racks for Spain are twinned with the Rallye Deutschland.
* Two transmission and differential assemblies were sealed in Germany for each car. They are available for the Rally Catalunya.
* Tyres: the quota per driver is 70 tyres, of which 47 may be used (event and shakedown). The list of nominated tyres and patterns (two) had to be registered with the FIA on Monday October 1.
* Shakedown (Thursday October 4, between 08.00 and 12.00) uses the same 3.98km stage as that used in 2006. It is situated 60km southwest of Port Aventura, between Tivissa and La Serra d'Almos. A special service park will be organised in Mora la Nova.
* The seafront start ceremony starts at 19.30 on Thursday October 4.
* One route observation crew is authorised per driver to cover each stage before the competitors.