Less than a week after the finish of the Tour of Corsica, which saw the team move into the lead of both the Manufacturers' and Drivers' championships, CitroÃ«n heads now for Catalonia where four Xsara WRCs have been entered for Colin McRae/Derek...
Less than a week after the finish of the Tour of Corsica, which saw the team move into the lead of both the Manufacturers' and Drivers' championships, Citroën heads now for Catalonia where four Xsara WRCs have been entered for Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti and Philippe Bugalski/Jean-Paul Chiaroni.
Generally organised in March, the Spanish round has this year been scheduled seven months later and will effectively be the penultimate round of the 2003 calendar. It promises therefore to be particularly crucial and a strong run in the last of the season's five asphalt encounters will be vital to put the team in the best possible position before the grand finale, Wales Rally GB (November 6th-9th).
The Citroën team has an excellent pedigree in Catalonia. The early days of the Xsara Kit Car at world level saw the car win the '2-litre' category in Lloret de Mar in 1998. The following year, Philippe Bugalski and his co-driver Jean-Paul Chiaroni went a step better by taking the same car to outright victory. In 2001, the new Xsara WRC came close to winning the event on its maiden World Championship outing.
The 2003 event features a significant number of changes however, which means there will be various unknown factors in the equation. The loop that traditionally took crews south to Tarragona has been dropped and all this year's stages are located near Vic, 80 km northwest of the coastal resort of Lloret de Mar, where all three legs will start and finish. One result of this compact formula is the introduction of a significant proportion of new stages which account for some 45% of the total competitive distance according to Jean-Paul Chiaroni. Meanwhile, the date switch could well bring unsettled weather conditions too.
To prepare for the current series of three asphalt events in less than a month (Sanremo, Tour of Corsica, Catalonia), Citroën chose to run two test sessions, one of which was organised in Catalonia where all four drivers took turns at the wheel to produce a basic set-up for the Xsara. This package was then fine-tuned at a further test in Italy and Citroën went on to not only win in Sanremo but also take the lead in the Manufacturers' World Championship.
The same set-up was employed in Corsica where it once again proved totally satisfactory, enabling Citroën to extend its cushion at the top of championship, while Spain's Carlos Sainz took the lead in the Drivers' standings, just days before his home event. To defend these enviable positions, the team is now preparing to battle on both fronts. And, as everybody knows, the best form of defence… is attack!
Telefónica Movistar, Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, Kinetic, OZ, AIS and Citroën Financement are Team Citroën-Total's partners in the World Rally Championship.
Questions to Guy Fréquelin…
Citroën's visit to Ajaccio proved less successful than its weekend in Sanremo. Yet you seem very satisfied with the team's result on the Tour of Corsica… "We didn't win but we were up there fighting at the sharp end. That's the first positive point. At the same time, we doubled our lead in the Manufacturers' championship and Carlos Sainz is now on top in the Drivers' classification. That's two further reasons to be satisfied. I also liked the way the team pulled together immediately after being shaken by Sébastien's off and I appreciated the way Seb kicked himself back into action with fastest time on all four stages of the final leg after a momentary, and understandable, down. It was a very difficult event and I believe we played our hand well!"
Carlos Sainz now leads the championship, but Sébastien failed to profit from one of the last three opportunities of the season to score points. How do you evaluate your drivers' chances of taking the title? "Carlos has pulled out a small lead in the Drivers' championship and will be on home soil in Spain. His consistency and combativeness have been exemplary. I believe that Sébastien still has every chance too. Markko Märtin didn't add to his score in Corsica, Petter Solberg's prospects in Spain could depend on the weather and Seb's performance in Australia leads me to believe he has a card to play in Wales. Who would have gambled on Petter's chances after last Thursday's shakedown before the Tour of Corsica? Yet three days later, he's back in the fight for the title! Everything is still very much up in the air, which makes making any sort of forecast very difficult indeed…"
Catalonia has often been a successful event for Citroën. In what frame of mind will you tackle this year's event? What are your strengths and what do you see as the pitfalls to keep clear of? "The car's basic set-up showed its potential in Sanremo and Corsica and we will adjust this set-up during shakedown to make the car as competitive as possible for the Catalonian stages. Since the start of the season, the Xsara has also been remarkably reliable and we trust it will stay that way this weekend in Spain. Last but not least of our strengths is the quality of our team and drivers. The question marks concern the new part of the route and the potential fickleness of the weather. Indeed, the ever-changing conditions posed a real problem in Corsica and made the weekend somewhat stressful… As for our frame of mind, it hasn't changed since we got back from Australia: the championship's final countdown has begun and there is no question of weakening. We will defend our chances to the end!"
…to Colin McRae…
The Tour of Corsica took place in very difficult weather conditions. What is your view of the way the event unfolded and were you satisfied with your performance? "The conditions were difficult because they were so unpredictable, even for the weather people. All the drivers found themselves at one moment or another on tyres that weren't adapted to the conditions. I am reasonably pleased with my weekend. I didn't come away with a big points haul myself, but I am happy to have played my part in what proved a good run for Citroën as far as the Manufacturers' championship goes…"
Catalonia is a rally you like. What are its principle features? "This year's rally is based entirely around Vic and we can expect to find quite a few changes. The roads in this region tend to get dirty and slippery as the cars cut the corners. As far as driving style is concerned, it's really a classic asphalt rally. The stages are quite fast and that means you have to need to find the ideal rhythm and pace."
Given the current championship standings, what is your objective in Catalonia? Do you think you stand a chance of winning? "Winning will be difficult! To be honest, I'm not at the same level as Sébastien or Markko Märtin at the moment. I still hope to come away from Spain with a good result however. I want to finish in a good position, score some points and be there if one of us hits a problem."
…to Carlos Sainz…
What led you to make the rather brave tyre choice that allowed you to clinch 2nd place in the final stage of the Tour of Corsica? "It wasn't at all certain that fitting 'dry weather' tyres was the best choice. As was the case throughout the rally, it was something of a lottery… That said, our information was that it had stopped raining and that the roads were drying. I thought it was the right option, so I decided to try my luck and it worked!"
The Catalonia Rally is your home event. What does that mean for you? Extra pressure? Added motivation? "It's always a pleasure to compete in front of home fans, even if that does mean I will be very much in demand over the weekend. I don't feel any extra pressure though. Competing on home soil gives you more motivation than pressure in fact because you obviously want to do well in order to be worthy of everyone's encouragement and expectations. I hope I manage to do that!"
You go to this event as leader of the Drivers' championship and driving for the team that is currently on top in the Manufacturers' stakes. What, if anything, does that change, and how do you see the weekend unfolding? "I said at the end of the Tour of Corsica that being in the lead of the championship going into my home round is the best thing that could happen to me. That said, neither the team nor I will change our approach to the event. It won't be any different to the approach that proved so successful in Sanremo and Corsica. We are in the running for two championships that are extraordinarily close, which means that each of the two remaining events will be very important, and very exciting. As far as the way Catalonia is likely to unfold, only one thing is certain: it's going to be an incredible fight!"
…to Sébastien Loeb…
You posted the highest number of fastest stage times in Corsica, yet you didn't score a single point… "On the final day, I had nothing to gain and nothing lose, but I had to stay motivated. I drove well and I hope our two passes through Sunday's stages at that sort of speed will prove beneficial in the future. That said, it's clear we missed a chance to score big points in Corsica, or even perhaps take the lead in the championship. We are now six points behind Carlos, with two other drivers between us. The situation could be better, but at least we won't have to think about controlling from in front. In Catalonia and Great Britain, we intend to attack from start to finish. May the fastest man win…"
You don't have much experience of Catalonia. You've only started the event three times, and only once driving a WRC car… "That's true. And on top of that, we weren't particularly strong last year. However, half of the route is new this time round. We don't know yet what the new stages will be like and you obviously take more risks when you attack on roads you've never driven on before at rally speed. But everyone will be in the same boat and that helps level the playing field. I feel comfortable with those stages I know. I like the wide roads, which are akin to a circuit in places …"
Are you prepared for the final title fight showdown on the Wales Rally GB? "I don't have much choice in the matter. The chances of the title being settled in Catalonia are pretty slim and I do like the British round. It was there last year that I posted my first top stage times on gravel. Yet our car was less competitive then than it is now. When you compare how we went in Australia in 2002 with our run there this year, you can see how much the Xsara and I have come on. If the curve is the same for Rally GB, then I sincerely believe we stand a real chance!"
…and to Philippe Bugalski.
How do you judge your performance in Corsica? "A bit half and half really. Half wet, and half dry! Ninth place wasn't what I was hoping for. I had a throttle problem on Day 1, but I was especially disappointed with my run on the second leg. My tyre choices weren't always ideal and I found myself having to cope with soft intermediates on dry roads. I felt I was attacking hard; too hard maybe? Happily, I found my marks on the final day. I felt good with the car and set some decent times, on a par with the drivers in the thick of the fight up front…"
The Catalonia Rally is one of your two favourite events. Why? "It's a great rally and well organised. The stages I am already familiar with are very fast, with changes in rhythm and grip. They call for driver bravery. Their profile just makes you want to drive them, and they are sufficiently wide for you to really work on getting the lines just right. I suppose I also like this event because I have already won it once, and almost a second time on the Xsara WRC's World Championship debut."
Something like 45% of this year's stages are new. You are less familiar with the current recce restrictions than the drivers who compete in the full championship. Is that a handicap? "You could effectively think that was the case. I was brought up with other ways of working but I think you've just got to adapt the way you dictate and check your notes with two passes. Once the rally has started, the most important thing is to have a good feeling with the car, to feel totally confident. When you've got that, you can drive very quickly with the notes you have. In Corsica, I was perfectly at ease in many of the new portions…"