The busy 'sprint' that competitors face over the second half of the season (an event scheduled every other weekend) kicked off in Finland and continues in Germany. For the championship's return to asphalt, CitroÃ«n has entered two Xsara WRCs for...
The busy 'sprint' that competitors face over the second half of the season (an event scheduled every other weekend) kicked off in Finland and continues in Germany. For the championship's return to asphalt, Citroën has entered two Xsara WRCs for its usual crews, Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti.
As in previous years, Germany's round of the World Championship represents something of a question mark inasmuch as the factory World Rally Cars haven't competed on asphalt since last January's Monte Carlo Rally. Some would even say since Catalonia 2003 given the Monte's distinctive wintry character. In either case, teams have little precise knowledge of how their rivals currently compare on this type of surface.
That said, the Deutschland Rally is seen as the least typical asphalt round of them all, a reputation it owes less to the twisty stages that flank the Mosel and Saar valleys than to the tests run over the tank tracks that criss-cross the extensive Baumholder military ranges, high on the Hunsrück Plateau. The surface here is a mix of concrete, gravel, paving stones, gravel and grass, as well as the occasional stretch of asphalt! Meanwhile, many of the tracks are bordered by imposing concrete blocks designed to prevent the armoured vehicles sliding off the road…
The German round's other main feature is the often uncertain weather which can range from searing heat and a very real risk of storms to damper, overcast conditions. The Mosel River cuts a 'corridor' between the Eifel and Hunsrück Hills along which weather fronts tend to be channelled, giving the event its special flavour and complicating tyre choice. Indeed, certain choices have to be made well upstream of some stage starts and are made more complex still by the inclusion of RTFZs (Remote Tyre Fitting Zones) during Legs 2 and 3. At these mini service parks, drivers will only be able to choose from three 'pre-selected' sets of tyres…
This year's Deutschland Rally marks the maiden asphalt outing of the 2004 Xsara which features revised weight distribution thanks to a switch to composite wings and the latest homologations (notably concerning the engine) that first appeared in New Zealand. The car has undergone extensive pre-event preparation in the hands of Philippe Bugalski, as well as a week of testing organised between the Argentina and Finland rallies. This session was attended by Carlos and Sébastien who put the Xsara through its paces over the roads of the Mosel Valley vineyards as well as across the Baumholder ranges. The week was also a chance to test the latest tyres developed by Citroën's longstanding partner Michelin.
The Xsara WRC is unbeaten in Trier since 2001. Winner of both Deutschland Rallies to have counted towards the World Championship (2002, 2003), Sébastien Loeb views this rally - which takes place close to his native Alsace - as his own. Meanwhile, the entire Citroën team is fired up not only to defend its monopoly in Germany but also to strengthen its position on top of both the Drivers' and Manufacturers' points tables.
Questions to Guy Fréquelin…
Following the addition of two new gravel rounds and the switch of Rallye d'Italia to the loose, the proportion of asphalt rallies has been reduced to one quarter of the championship. What are your thoughts on this? And what in your opinion would be the ideal ratio?
"It's a shame that gravel has become so preponderant in the championship. At the end of the day, the cars we promote via this sport are designed for use on asphalt. This accentuation of the tendency towards gravel is perhaps aimed at countering the domination of the French makes over this type of surface, but our rivals are already making significant inroads into this domination: Markko Märtin posted the highest number of fastest stage times in Germany last year and Petter Solberg won outright in Corsica. Personally, I believe the ideal proportion of asphalt events in a sixteen-round championship is five events.
How has your team approached the calendar's return to asphalt?
"The Deutschland Rally is the most unpredictable asphalt rally of them all, so it has to be prepared with great care. It's a mixture of three different types of surface, which means tyre choice will be critically important. It's also quite conceivable that the choice that appears ideal at service could end up being an error by the time the cars reach the start of the group of stages. If the weather proves unsettled and changeable, Baumholder will be very difficult to read accurately and it could become a total lottery. As a result, the Deutschland Rally will not necessarily provide an accurate guide to the pecking order on asphalt that we will be able to apply to the two other rallies on this type of surface…"
Citroën has scored three consecutive wins in Trier, including both occasions that the event counted towards the World Championship. Is a fourth win possible…?
"Of course it is! And that's what we'll be out to achieve. I hope the Xsara and our drivers will be in the thick of the fight at the sharp end and I am counting on the team's technical staff to call this one as well as they can, notably concerning tyre tactics. But I have no intention of losing sight of the fact that our ultimate aim is to win both championships. As I have already said, this rally can be decided on a throw of a dice. And if it doesn't roll as we wish, we will react accordingly…"
…to Sébastien Loeb…
What is your analysis of your weekend in Finland? And how do you feel physically?
"I finished Rally Finland pleased, disappointed, and in pain! Pleased because it wasn't a foregone conclusion that I would succeed in increasing my championship lead on this event. But I was disappointed with my personal performance. It's such a specific rally, and I have yet to master it, but I intend doing everything in my power to put that right. Finally, I was in quite a lot of pain following my accident during testing over the Baumholder ranges. Over the last two stages in Finland, I had to manage my lead over Janne Tuohino despite suffering quite badly, especially on landing after the jumps. My programme since Finland has been check-ups, treatment and rest… I'm glad to say the pain is going away and I intend to be fully fit in time for Germany!"
The Deutschland Rally was the scene of your maiden WRC win. Is it a special event for you?
"It is! It's perhaps not the most prestigious round of the championship, but it's one all my friends from home can easily come and watch, since Alsace is just an hour and a half away by car. And although it has never been a simple rally, it has always gone well for me. I recently analysed last year's stage times in detail as a function of everyone's tyre choices. That reminded me how close the fight had been, right up to the very end. Tyre choices promise to be more critical still following the introduction of quantity restrictions. We're really going to have to play this one close to our chest!"
Will you be aiming for a third consecutive win?
"I effectively want to win again. I was very pleased with the Xsara I drove during pre-event testing and I am happy with the work that has been done. The car was easy to drive and nicely balanced. I felt confident, and that is important given how delicate the conditions can be. For once, being first on the road during the opening leg shouldn't be a handicap. We have some good cards in our hand and we don't have our backs to the wall, which means we can choose our own tactics. I feel confident!"
…and to Carlos Sainz…
Before Argentina, you said that to succeed in an event, you have to love it. What is your opinion of the Deutschland Rally?
"I have occasionally read in the press that this is a rally I don't like. That's not strictly true! For sure, it's not my favourite, but that doesn't mean I don't like it… There are certain rallies on which I don't derive as much pleasure as elsewhere, but they are part of the championship and you have got to concentrate on doing your best. That's what I will be doing in Germany with the intention of finishing in the big points again…"
You recently tested the Xsara on asphalt. Did it feel as competitive as last year's car? How has it improved?
"Last year's Xsara was very competitive, not only on the traditional asphalt events like Corsica and Catalonia, but also over the delicate stages we face in Germany. The team's technical staff has worked hard to make the car even more efficient and easy to drive to ensure we feel totally confident. Detail changes have made the car more stable and easier to drive."
The challenging conditions of the Baumholder ranges and potentially fickle weather are a special combination. How will you approach this event? What is your objective?
"I hope the weather will not affect the competition. If conditions are unsettled, tyre choice will be more important here than elsewhere… and it could turn into a very different rally indeed! Apart from the Mosel Valley vineyard stages, the roads are often coated in dirt which makes them slippery and delicate. If that is the case, we will tend to be on the defensive and we will have to drive very cautiously … The Baumholder stages are also fairly 'Mickey Mouse', with lots of junctions that call for very hard braking. If it's wet like last year, that's not particularly fun! The ideal result would be to finish on the podium, but the objective is to finish in the big points…"