Immediate take-off! Less than three weeks after the Argentine fiesta and CitroÃ«n's historic sixth consecutive win there, the Xsara WRCs of SÃ©bastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and FranÃ§ois Duval/Sven Smeets are back in the northern hemisphere for ...
Less than three weeks after the Argentine fiesta and Citroën's historic sixth consecutive win there, the Xsara WRCs of Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and François Duval/Sven Smeets are back in the northern hemisphere for the FIA World Rally Championship's annual, high-flying trip to Finland, Round 10 of the 2005 series.
No longer poetically known as the '1000 Lakes Rally', the former 'Great Race of Jyväskylä' nonetheless continues to be the Rally of the 1000 Jumps, and also the championship's fastest round, with the winner's average speed invariably around the 120 kph mark. This combination of high speed and crests is responsible for the amazing jumps, airborne moments and spectacular landings that have forged the reputation of this Grand Prix on gravel. Generations of Finnish drivers have kept a jealous guard over their home event and few foreigners have succeeded in breaking their stranglehold: four Swedish wins in the course of the first 39 events, Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol in the early 90s and Estonia's Markko Märtin in 2003.
Ever since the Xsara WRC's maiden flight here in 2002, the Versailles-Satory-based team has patiently fine-tuned its understanding of this unique terrain to make its car increasingly competitive, a claim borne out by the progress of its stage times and results in recent years. To prepare for this year's rally, Citroën Sport's test team made full use of the four days of on-site testing permitted by the regulations. "Because of the high speeds, the steering has to be as precise as possible," explains the Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "At the same time, the jumps mean the suspension must be capable of soaking up the constraints associated with every landing. It's all about finding a set-up that combines these two requirements as effectively as possible, without neglecting the car's 'in-flight' performance..."
Neste Rally Finland's countless jumps make this event something of a monument. However, the practically unassailable nature of this stronghold only serves to add value to a victory here and the will to win this round was already implanted in the minds of the 'Reds' at the beginning of the year, before being fanned by the team's success over the fast gravel of April's Rally New Zealand; Finland without the jumps! The five wins which have followed since that achievement have merely served to reinforce the squad's confidence and hopes. Aware that factors such as running first on the road on Day 1 (more than 90 km of 'road sweeping' without no rivals' lines to guide him), the weather and the locals' inborn sisu (fighting spirit) are likely to complicate their task, Citroën Sport, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena can but aim for top spot given their recent run of success. And that would be an ideal way to celebrate Seb and Daniel's 50th start with the Xsara WRC...
As a former successful driver himself, Guy Fréquelin obviously shares the same will to win as his troops, although the Citroën Sport Director is conscious that the prime objective is to defend the team's Drivers' and Manufacturers' crowns: "However legendary an event it is, Rally Finland is just one of the sixteen 'stages' that make up the long rally that is the championship. We need to bear that in mind all the time..."
Questions to Guy Fréquelin...
With a score of seven wins since the beginning of the season, including six in a row, your team must be feeling quite euphoric. How do you deal with that?
"This may come as a surprise, but there is no euphoria in the team. Or rather there was a moment of euphoria and immense joy during the minutes that followed Seb and Daniel's win in Argentina. It was effectively an exceptional exploit. However, from Sunday afternoon's post-event debrief in Villa Carlos Paz, everyone was aware that we needed to carry on working. I admit that I put on a little pressure by making a point of the minor problems we encountered. There weren't many, but there were some. Today, there is no feeling of euphoria. More the satisfaction of a job well done and an incredible motivation for the challenges ahead..."
In New Zealand, you underlined that the Xsara's first win on fast gravel opened up new opportunities and hope. You were obviously hinting at Finland...
"I think we have never been so close to finding the most competitive set-up for the specific demands of Rally Finland's stages. This set-up is slightly different to that required for New Zealand. Our recent win in Rally Argentina was also very promising since it is quite possible we will come across the same sort of wet, cold conditions in Finland at the beginning of August as we did in the sierra. Although I can't overlook the fact that some of our manufacturer and driver rivals enjoy far more experience of Finland than we do, I believe we now have a grasp of a good proportion of this event's special parameters. Seb has an extra visit under his belt since last year and the team has given him a car in which he has total confidence, so I hope we will be able to play a part in the fight at the sharp end..."
Sébastien really wants to win. Will you attempt to rein him in any way? What do expect of François?
"The instructions for François are the same as those he had in Argentina. This rally is too difficult for him to take excessive risks and I want him to finish in the Manufacturers' points. There will be a high number of local drivers in competitive WRC cars who can finish ahead of him, but that's not a problem in championship terms since they are 'transparent'. As far as Seb is concerned, it's been a long time since we last had call to either rein him in or give him a free rein! We have talked about our strategy. He knows we aren't clear in the Manufacturers' championship and that I am not the type of person to risk seeing the advantage we have progressively pulled out being nibbled away at by going all out for victory, even on such a prestigious event as Rally Finland. He understood that message perfectly last year in Corsica where he wanted to win every bit as much. That said, if his natural pace allows him to fight for victory, then we will be behind him all the way..."
...to Sébastien Loeb...
How did your pre-Rally Finland testing go?
"I spent two days in the Jyväskylä region, one working on a stage that was perfect for testing, then half a day on another road which began to cut up, so we moved on to a third venue. Driving in Finland the day after the Acropolis Rally was an object lesson in adapting. The scenery passes by at a completely different speed. We started off with the fast gravel set-up which enabled us to win Rally New Zealand but with changes dialled in for the jumps and landings. We also profited from the session to test the tyres proposed by Michelin as we usually do. I was pleased with the way my Xsara handled and I am now looking forward to seeing how our work compares against the stopwatch..."
This will be your sixth Rally Finland start. How do you find this very specific terrain?
"So far, this hasn't been one of the rallies on which I have felt the most comfortable. Putting my two participations with the Saxo to one side, I sometimes asked myself when driving the Xsara WRC: 'How do they do it?', especially to begin with. But then I saw that I was capable of putting in decent times too, especially second time over the same stages. The problem is that it's difficult, impossible even, to make up for any ground you lose early on against a driver like Marcus [Grönholm]. That said, my knowledge of the stages is a little better every year and the Xsara has continued to evolve. At the same time, if certain people -- justifiably -- used to describe me as a slow starter, I am now capable of driving flat out from the instant a stage starts. The combination of all that makes me feel quite confident. The Citroën team has already shown that once it has come to terms with a given type terrain, it is a potential winner..."
You give the impression of really wanting to add this particularly difficult rally to your record...
"I effectively want to win it. It's a legendary event that very few non-Finns have won and I'm on a good run at the moment. However, I have no intention of driving absolutely flat out. That's not my style. I'm not the sort of driver who goes crazy. It's not in my nature to take what I have noted as a 5th-gear corner in 6th in the belief that it'll be OK. In the last stage in Mexico, as well as in Argentina after my spin, I was close to the limit but I still kept it tidy. Scrambling round a corner doesn't suit me and it doesn't pay. So I will drive in my usual way, pushing as hard as I feel I can to begin with, then seeing where we stand and after that adapting ours tactics as necessary. In Finland, we will see early on whether we have a real chance of winning..."
...and to François Duval...
In retrospect, what is your analysis of your performance in Argentina?
"I wanted to do well without making any mistakes. I was overcautious to begin with and started at a rather slow pace. I enjoyed certain stages -- those I knew well -- and set some good times. I finished without a problem and picked up two points. I was pleased to see that the team's approach was very positive with me, while Sven did all he could to ensure that everything went well. Another positive point was our excellent relationship inside the car. We won't need much time to be completely in phase."
How have your previous visits to Finland gone?
"I think I set some good times during my fight with Seb in the Super 1600 championship in 2001, although I eventually retired, just as I did the two years after that. Things went better last year and I finished 7th. It's an event I enjoy, although it's very difficult. It takes a great deal of experience to be able to drive flat out. In numerous 6th-gear corners with jumps, there is only one ideal line. If you're not bang on it, you have to lift and, given the average speed of the stages, each time you lift you lose far more time than on a slower event. But that's the way it is! Testing went well and we came across all the possible weather conditions. Whichever way the weather turns on the day, the Xsara should be at ease..."
Is your objective the same as in Argentina?
"Exactly the same: to finish, but in a better position if possible. In Argentina, we allowed our rivals to pull clear on Day 1. After that, we played a waiting game which ended up not paying because nobody ahead of us retired. In Finland, there will be a lot of quick locals in WRC cars. Don't expect us to be that well placed on Day 1. We will endeavour to be as consistent as possible..."