A rallying summit over crests After returning from the southern hemisphere with a splendid one-two finish in the bank, CitroÃ«n has entered two Xsara WRCs for the difficult, northernmost round of the championship - Rally Finland - for ...
A rallying summit over crests
After returning from the southern hemisphere with a splendid one-two finish in the bank, Citroën has entered two Xsara WRCs for the difficult, northernmost round of the championship - Rally Finland - for Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti.
Named Rally of the Year in 1998, 2002 and 2003, the Finnish event claims to be "more than a rally" and is keen to maintain its reputation as a Grand Prix on gravel. To give an idea of its difficulty, a glance at the list of past winners reveals that only three non-Nordic drivers to date have succeeded in planting their flag on the summit of rallying's Everest, namely Carlos Sainz, Didier Auriol and Markko Märtin.
And although the best-place home-grown driver in 2003 finished no higher than 6th, this unprecedented situation should not lull the non-Finns into believing their task will be any easier this time round. Indeed, there is even likely to be a whiplash effect with the local stars feeding on last year's upset to stock up on the legendary fighting force they call 'sisu'.
Rally Finland's unique flavour stems from the quality of the country's gravel roads, which are more often than not wide and hard-packed, as well as from the relative absence of hills which means that slow corners are few and far between. The stages are run at very high speeds, as illustrated by the winner's average in 2003 (over 121 kph), while the average speed over 'Kruununperä' exceeded 133 kph. The other celebrated feature of the event is of course its countless crests - a legacy of the last glacial period - which launch the cars into breathtakingly long jumps.
For this high-flying round, it is essential to have a balanced car that takes off and lands level: "softly, like a big cat" as the team's Technical Manager Jean-Claude Vaucard puts it. The Xsara is already strong in this domain, but this hasn't prevented Citroën from further fine-tuning the car's aerodynamics and suspension, which is put to the test on every landing. Pre-Finland testing also enabled the team to optimise grip, notably through the twistier, sandier portions.
With the increasingly competitive Xsara, the near-juvenile ardour of the ever-combative Carlos Sainz plus the analytical skills and rapid progress of Sébastien Loeb, the Citroën team incontestably has a number of trump cards in its hand and can legitimately hope for another top result in Jyväskylä. But Guy Fréquelin, who shares that aim, prefers to keep his feet on the ground: "Rally Finland is still a formidable fortress. For us to conquer it represents a tough, if exciting and motivating challenge. Even so, it is a unique event and the local specialists will be out for revenge. Our priority will not be to win at all costs therefore but to keep up our capital by finishing in the big points..."
Questions to Guy Fréquelin
With hindsight, how do you view Citroën's recent performance in Argentina?
"Even with hindsight, it was an extremely uplifting result! Indeed, it would be difficult not to be delighted with what we achieved in Argentina... a record-breaking win for Carlos in front of some of his biggest fans, second place for Seb and we lead both championships at the season's halfway point. I am also very pleased with the way the team obtained this result. Carlos was a match for Marcus Grönholm and showed how competitive the Xsara is over the Argentine stages. Naturally, after the immediate joy and the ensuing analysis comes the moment to see what has to be done next to remain at this level..."
Rally Finland promises to be a pointer...
"It's perhaps THE pointer! If you compare our stage times in Finland in 2002 and 2003, we succeeded in cutting the difference per kilometre that separated us from the fastest cars by three, without ever making up the gap. In the immediate wake of last year's event, we organised a test session in order to evaluate the solutions based on our analysis of what we had seen during the rally. This highly beneficial test paid dividends in Australia and Great Britain. Since then, we have continued to work... on the engine, the suspension, the set-up, etc. I hope the progress we have made in all domains will enable us to take part in the fight for first place."
You are therefore thinking in terms of a Citroën win...
"Having an objective doesn't necessarily mean you will achieve it... although in the current context, victory really has to be our target. But Rally Finland is still a formidable fortress. For us to conquer it represents a tough, if exciting challenge. Even so, it is a unique event and our priority will not be to beat the local specialists at all costs but to finish in the big points. We are in a favourable position in both championships, but our lead is not sufficiently strong for us to be able to indulge in fantasies that could compromise our advantage. Just like a football team that is ahead, we can choose not to expose ourselves and yet be ready to pounce on an opening if one should come up!"
Questions to Sébastien Loeb
This year will be your fifth participation in Rally Finland, and the third at the wheel of the Xsara WRC. Does that represent sufficient experience to be able to play a leading role?
"With the exception of 2001, with the Saxo Super 1600, I have always found this rally difficult. Early on in last year's event I was slower than my team-mates for the first time. It's an event where I have sometimes had the impression that I'm going well only to find that I wasn't quick enough. I believe experience of the terrain is primordial, so I was pleased to learn that only 20 km or so will be new this time round compared with 2003. Last year, I effectively posted some decent times second time through certain stages that were run twice. My benchmark was the classic 'Ouninpohja' test; second time through I practically equalled the fastest overall time of the first run..."
The countless crests are a big feature of this event. How do you approach them?
"The jumps are an important part of the rally, but it's not just over the jumps or because of the jumps that you set a good time. In my notes, I use the same system as for water splashes, that is to say the gear ratio I use going into them. This also means that they stand out clearly from the corners which are noted as angles. My line after 'take off' depends essentially on what follows when you land. Since I have been coming here with the Xsara WRC, I have fine-tuned my 'jump notes' stage by stage. After the finish, Daniel and I immediately go through the notes again to make corrections while they are still fresh in our minds. Certain jumps that were noted '4' at the start of the 2002 event have since become '6 flat '. It all comes back to the experience thing..."
You start this event as leader of the championship. Is that an advantage?
"I think so. Of course, I will perhaps face a road-sweeping session on Friday. That goes hand in hand with the joy of being in the lead the championship. How much that will cost in time terms over the 80 km of the first two loops remains to be seen. I've never been first on the road in Finland. In any case, it will depend on the weather, so we will just have to wait and see... We'll decide on the day what tactics to adopt. To win this prestigious rally is a dream that I hope to fulfil one day. But winning the world title is more important than finishing first in Finland. My position in the championship means I can take a step back to look at the overall picture..."
Questions to Carlos Sainz
In Turkey, you went level with Colin McRae in terms of WRC wins. Your win in Argentina saw you set new record. Did it have a special taste? How would you rate your different wins?
"The most recent one is always the best. Winning in Argentina meant a great deal to me: it was my 26th WRC victory, while it was also nice to win on what nearly feels like home ground and in a magnificent country where the people always give us such a warm welcome. I prefer not to classify my wins though. That would be very difficult. They mean different things to me. My first win, the Acropolis Rally, still has a special taste, so does my win on the 1000 Lakes. I enjoyed wining the Monte Carlo Rally because it's known across the world and notoriously difficult. And the Safari... that was really something!"
What do you think of Rally Finland? How do you classify and note the jumps? What are the special features of this rally and the keys to a good result...?
"Rally Finland is superb. It's a great pleasure to drive on these very wide roads It's exciting and extremely exhilarating, even if you have a big moment from time to time. I don't note the jumps in any special way. I try to evaluate the speed at which they should be taken and if I arrive too quickly, well... I brake! In fact, with speeds during recce limited to 80 kph, it is quite difficult to judge how fast you can go on the day. You also have to anticipate your lines otherwise you risk landing off the road. So it's basically a question of anticipation and feeling."
How did you find the Xsara during your pre-Finland testing? How do you see the rally going?
"I was down on luck during our test in Finland because it rained. The conditions weren't at all ideal. But the Xsara is very good and the whole team is fired up for a top result. I still think the locals - Marcus Grönholm and Harri Rovanperä - will be a serious threat, as well as Markko Märtin who won there last year."