Here comes tarmac The 2006 calendar differs from the two previous ones in the fact that Catalunya will mark the first quarter of the season instead of New Zealand. On top of that, with the `pair regulations', the event will be followed almost ...
Here comes tarmac
The 2006 calendar differs from the two previous ones in the fact that Catalunya will mark the first quarter of the season instead of New Zealand. On top of that, with the `pair regulations', the event will be followed almost immediately by the Tour de Corse: two big slices of tarmac with a spring sauce in a `sandwich' composed of the two events taking place on the American ground.
The Catalunya rally is back to its 2002 date. After the specific terrains of Monte Carlo some asphalt but not really either and Sweden, and after the Mexican gravel, here comes the real tarmac. By then, the teams would have completed a round on any kind of surface, and would have a better idea of what could be the rest of the series.
For the event, the Kronos Total Citroen World Rally Team enters two 2006 Xsara WRCS for its usual nominated crews: reigning World Champions Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena who also won the event in 2005 and their Spanish team-mates Xevi Pons and Carlos Del Barrio. Like for the previous rounds, Dani Sordo is `The third man'. As always co-driven by Marc Marti, the 2005 Junior World Champion will compete on the 2005 Xsara WRC that he already used on the last three occasions.
The Citroen Xsara coupe comes back on the terrain where it actually began in competition in 2001, and where it's been so close to winning the event on its first official outing on the World scene. The Citroen has always been very competitive in Spain except in 2002 and even scored a magnificent one-two last year thanks to Francois Duval, missing by just 1.2 seconds a one-two-three finish with Xevi Pons to complete the podium. Citroen Sport's development test team has undergone a big test session in the North of Catalunya, with a programme focused on the front and rear mechanical differentials. The target to obtain a balanced and precise car has been reached according to Sebastien Loeb. As usual, the session has also allowed the test of the BFGoodrich tyres range.
Even if the stages order has been slightly modified, the RallyRACC Catalunya's route is very close to last year's. Eight of the nine different stages sometimes run in both directions are identical or almost identical to 2005. On top of the shakedown which has moved, the competitors will only discover one stage -`Margalef/la Palma d'Ebre'. The total number of new kilometres doesn't exceed twenty-three. The special stages profile is very famous: beautiful wide and fast roads, often soft on the surface and generally appreciated by the drivers. However they all pay careful attention to the corners cuttings with the unevenness between the tarmac and the side of the roads and the very dirty sections.
The other parameter to monitor from closely will be the weather. Even if spring would have started since four days for the ceremonial start in Salou on Thursday, the `Costa Daurada' (the famous `golden coast') and its hinterland will however still wait for the warm sun which makes its reputation. According to Kronos' team Principal Marc Van Dalen, "the weather will play the role of the referee..." However, the game, even if tricky, promised to be thrilling.
Questions to Marc Van Dalen, team principal...
What kind of reactions has brought Kronos' first World win the first of a Belgian team?
"We received all sorts of messages. The press has largely talked about it in our country. Jacky Ickx gave us a friendly telephone call. Most of the people who have written letters said they were happy and proud. In the team, the joy was even bigger because we have the immense satisfaction to enter in the very exclusive group of the `winners'. The fact Sebastien and Daniel had rejoined our team made us hope for such a result but we had to go and look for it. Twice we were very close and the third time we did it. Now we know we are capable of it. It's very motivating, and even exciting...."
In Catalunya, you will enter a third Xsara again. Has Dani Sordo given up defending his
"Dani's partners and supports are very satisfied with his performance behind the wheel of a WRC so far, and wish he continues this way. Citroen Sport, who with Dani would have competed in JWRC, has given its approval. The FIA has also authorised him to do so. He will compete both in Catalunya and Corsica with a Xsara WRC. Personally I think that he has shown some skills so far but he now has to show sure skills. He should prove his potential but of course has to keep the car on the road. His presence next to Seb et Xevi, splendid fourth last year, reinforces our team."
In Monte Carlo, you said you noticed some interesting facts for the coming asphalt
rounds. You took part in this event three times already so what are your ambitions for
"With Sebastien, Daniel, the Xsara and the BFGoodrich tyres, we have one of the most performing combinations on tarmac. Our target is to fight with the front-runners. I also hope for a good performance from Xevi who has done an excellent race here last year. I would be delighted if he could climb on the podium which he missed so closely last year. I also wish Dani surprises us. I am confident but cautious because the level of performance from our competitors still needs to be judged and also because the rain could play an important role...."
...to Sebastien Loeb...
After a short week of ski holidays can you tell us about your feelings after your win in
"Talking about `figures' it is actually excellent as we are now leading both championships. Everything worked well for us and our car. However, what we have learnt on the level of the competition is interesting but incomplete. As Marcus Gronholm was driving first on the road, we cannot be sure we know everything about him yet. We've seen the fight was extremely close with Petter Solberg too. But we have done a good job on the Xsara with the transition to the mechanical diffs and it's still a winning car."
How did you prepare for the pair Catalunya/Corsica?
"We completed one test session around Vic, in the area where the rally took place until 2004. The stages of the Southern version of the rally compares really well with those from the North: beautiful, fast, often very soft on the surface and with the only problem of deep corners cuttings. Of course we have worked on the mechanical differentials and we now have to finetune the settings. We also worked on different small things and repeated our work on the tyres trying to take the best advantage of the BFGoodrich range.
I was already satisfied with the car's balance in Monte Carlo and after this test my feeling is excellent. I am extremely happy with the work the development team of Citroen Sport has done. I hope the times will match my current satisfaction."
Is tarmac still the Xsara's private garden?
"First indications Friday March the 24th and final answer Sunday the 26th! Except for 2002, since it started in 2001 the Xsara has always competed for a win in Catalunya. It's true that in Monte Carlo, which I consider globally like a tarmac rally, we were fighting in front. It gives us hopes for here. Even if some uncertainty remains especially with the weather and our competitors' level of performance, we will try to win. If we still have that little margin on tarmac, we should take advantage of the situation to score a maximum of points."
... and to Xavier Pons
You are born in Vic, you live in Manlleu close to the `heart' of the Northern version of the
Catalunya rally. Were you a fan before becoming a rally driver?
"My passion for the rally started in those stages. `La Trona', `Sant Julià' and `La Roca' are just part of my life. My dad was Catalunya's rally champion in 1984 and my mum was also a rally fan. At home, we've always spoke about rally. With the `Costa-Brava' next door and such a racing family, I think it was written somewhere I will become a driver. It's not surprising that I am now fighting to get to the top of that sport. I will never forget my first Catalunya in 2003 and especially the final stage `Vilaudrau 2' in which we climbed up to fifteenth position just behind the WRCs, winning the group N at the same time."
What do you think about the move of the Rally Catalunya to Salou? After taking part in
the Northern version, do you like the Southern stages?
"LLoret de Mar and Vic were both two fantastic rally centres. Salou and PortAventura are also very good with the big advantage that the start and service park are close one from another. The RACC's organisation remains as usual at the top. The unique difference comes from the stages. Up North, they are more technical with older asphalt on the surface. The speed tests in the South are faster and generally covered in a newer tarmac layer. Anyway, I like fast tracks and the RallyRACC-Costa Daurada isn't slow. On top of that, I drive on my home-ground here. And this is just the best thing."
Last year you seemed very much at ease here where you claimed for your world's best
result. What do you expect from the 2006 edition?
"As I always say, first of all I want to have fun. Enjoy the rally of my region with my friends, my fans, my family. I will give everything to make a good race and not to deceive the Catalans and Spanish supporters. When I see their flags on the sides of the roads, my motivation increases even more. After last year's result, the logical target is to do better and so we'll try to finish on the podium. Without any doubts it will be difficult, there are many fast drivers on tarmac. But with a performing Xsara, the team's work and our motivation... why not? In any case I will respect Marc Van Dalen's advice. He is the boss and he will decide if I should push hard or preserve a position for the `Manufacturers' championship... But I really hope he will tell me to attack!"