If Irish eyes are smiling... One thing is certain: the outcome of the 2007 World Rally Championship will be decided in the British Isles, and quite possibly on the first of the season's last two fixtures the inaugural Rally Ireland for which ...
If Irish eyes are smiling...
One thing is certain: the outcome of the 2007 World Rally Championship will be decided in the British Isles, and quite possibly on the first of the season's last two fixtures the inaugural Rally Ireland for which Citroen Sport has entered two C4 WRCs for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Marti.
After visits earlier in the year to Norway and Portugal, the Irish round is the third and final newcomer to the 2007 WRC calendar. The event is based in Sligo, in the northwest corner of the island, and a special feature of the route is the fact that it straddles two countries: the Republic of Ireland and Ulster. A total of 20 stages are programmed over the three legs, the first of which is the longest of the rally with no less than 168km of against-the-clock action... practically half the weekend's total competitive distance.
To find out whether the island's asphalt roads warranted their reputation, Citroen Sport paid an exploratory visit to the Donegal Rally with a C4 WRC for Sebastien and Daniel. The combination of the data collected during that outing and the team's desire to perfect its preparation for the fifteenth round of the 2007 championship prompted the French squad to organise a second dry run, this time on the Cork Rally, for which Seb and Daniel, were joined by Dani and Marc to give the Spanish pair a chance to familiarise themselves with the terrain, too.
These two events enabled Citroen to gauge just how virile the Irish stages promise to be. "There's no other asphalt event like it in the WRC," recognises Sebastien Loeb. "The stages in the Sligo region might turn out to be a little different to those we saw in Donegal and Cork, but we are expecting them to be very fast, narrow and bumpy, and lined with big banks. They are likely to be a very difficult cocktail, especially when you consider that it is imperative that we win. It will doubtlessly be close but we'll give it everything we've got!" Seb's analysis is echoed by Dani: "Although the Cork Rally took place in the south of Ireland, it still showed us how specific the Irish lanes are," he reports. "They were a big surprise to me, especially the grip which is low even in the dry. So I can only imagine what it will be like if it's wet!" Indeed, the Spaniard's remark highlights a factor that could well play a big role this weekend: the weather. The region in which the event takes place is by no means immune from fronts moving in from the Atlantic.
"The stages are atypical with many potential pitfalls. Adverse weather conditions would obviously make them more selective still. Rain would also make tyre choices even more complex which is another important factor. All the ingredients are in place to ensure that the inaugural Rally Ireland will be no stroll," predicts Guy Frequelin. "The result in Japan and the effect it had on the situation in the Drivers' championship make me glad that we decided to prepare our visit to Ireland so thoroughly. To keep their title chances alive, Sebastien and Daniel need to win. Meanwhile, Dani and Marc will again do what they can to finish between his team-mates and Marcus Gronholm. The Citroen C4 is unbeaten on asphalt this year and we hope that we will manage to keep up that record on this very different sort of terrain. Everyone at Citroen Sport is aware of the size of the challenge we face but we couldn't be more motivated..."
What is your analysis of what turned out to be a difficult Rally Japan?
"The long road sections, the timing, the demanding stages and the cold, damp weather combined to ensure that this year's Rally Japan was by no means simple, as we saw by the high number of offs. The result wasn't as favourable for Sebastien and Daniel as it might have been either. The fact that they and Marcus Gronholm retired resulted in a status quo at the top of both the Drivers and Co-drivers' points tables, which means that Seb and Daniel are still in contention for the title. Dani and Marc finished second and didn't make any mistakes, which was far from being a foregone conclusion given their limited experience of the event."
Where does that leave the situation with just two rounds remaining, beginning with Rally Ireland?
"Ireland promises to be a turning point. It isn't possible to predict all the potential scenarios, of course, but the fact remains that Seb and Daniel trail Marcus by four points, with two events remaining to attempt to bridge that gap. If they manage to win in Ireland, the final outcome will be influenced of course by the result Gronholm achieves in Sligo. If he comes second, Seb will still have a deficit of two points to make up on the championship's final round in Wales."
What lessons did you learn when you took part in the Donegal and Cork Rallies?
"From what the crews tell me, Rally Ireland won't be easy. All the staff from Citroen Sport who attended these two events reported that the roads and surface they found were like nothing they have come across anywhere else. The stages are difficult because they are extremely fast and narrow, and also very slippery with countless potential pitfalls. It should be a great event and Seb and Daniel will try to win, while Dani and Marc will do their utmost to finish ahead of Marcus Gronholm."
Have you managed to put your off in Japan and the points you lost behind you?
"I've never been one to dwell on the past. I prefer to look forward and I'm more interested in the two rounds to come. Daniel made a mistake like I can make mistakes at times. We've been competing together for almost ten years now and it was one of the first times he's ever made an error calling out a pacenote. We immediately got back into the swing by re-starting and pushing hard the following morning. That was important. When Gronholm retired, we had a chance of scoring a good result in Japan but we let it slip from our grasp. We can't afford to miss the next one. The overall result in Japan leaves us in the same situation we have been in for some events now: we've absolutely got to win. Before, we needed to win five rallies; now we need to win the next two!"
You have contested two rallies in Ireland this season. What did they teach you?
"They taught me that Rally Ireland won't be easy! It's important to point out that the Donegal and Cork Rallies don't take place in the same region as Sligo and the roads there might be different to what we've already seen. Taken part in these two events was a new experience but Citroen has good experience of asphalt. That said, Rally Ireland promises to be like no other event I know. I would perhaps liken it to the French Championship's Rallye du Touquet, only faster in places. The bumpy, narrow stages make it a very difficult cocktail and it will call for a special feeling."
To stay in the title chase, you need to win...
"We have no alternative. I start every event with the intention of winning and that's especially true this time. Our visits to Ireland earlier in the year, Citroen's experience of asphalt and the Citroen C4 WRC's proven competitiveness on sealed surfaces should all help us and I hope Dani and Marc succeed in finishing ahead of Marcus. We're still very much in with a shout, but we have very little margin for manoeuvre..."
You scored your best result on a gravel rally to date in Japan...
"I was very pleased to finish second on what was only my second visit to Japan, especially since it was such a tough event this year and many stages were new to me. The situation regarding grip was very complex and we needed to keep up a fast pace to maintain pressure on Mikko Hirvonen all the way to the finish. Happily, Marc and I came through the various pitfalls unscathed. We lifted where necessary and pushed whenever that was possible. I haven't lost sight, however, of the fact that our result was also due to the numerous mistakes made by those drivers who either had to profit from the SupeRally ruling or else retired."
The next event takes you back to asphalt, but Rally Ireland doesn't seem to a straightforward event...
"I have to say that I'm not expecting the Irish stages to be at all easy! We saw that at first hand when we contested the Cork Rally recently in a Xsara WRC. The roads shake you all over the place in a way that's not marked in the notes! During recce, we will therefore make a special point of noting as much about the surface as we can. There is very little margin for error because the stages are so narrow, with very little run-off, if any at all. I enjoyed my first taste of them, but now we need to see what the stages in the Sligo region are like."
What will your objective be in Sligo? Will you be looking to keep up your momentum after your result in Japan?
"That would be perfect, especially if it's Seb and Daniel who win! We will all be on an equal footing, of course. Nobody knows the stages and nobody really knows what to expect. I have a very good feeling on asphalt with the C4 WRC which has shown what it can do on this type of surface, so we hope we can help Sebastien by finishing ahead of Marcus Gronholm. That said, we saw in Corsica that Marcus is very quick on asphalt, so my role will perhaps be to put as much pressure on him as I can."