RALLY IRELAND FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 29.01.2009 Present: Sebastien Loeb, Citroen Total World Rally Team Chris Atkinson, Citroen Junior Team Mikko Hirvonen, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team Urmo Aava, Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally ...
FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
Sebastien Loeb, Citroen Total World Rally Team
Chris Atkinson, Citroen Junior Team
Mikko Hirvonen, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team
Urmo Aava, Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team
Aaron Burkart, FIA Junior World Rally Championship
Kevin Abbring, FIA Junior World Rally Championship
Welcome to the pre-event FIA Press Conference.
Q: It was a fantastic year for the Citroen Total World Rally Team in 2008, winning both the Manufacturers' and Drivers' titles. Is the aim to score the double again in 2009?
SL Yes, but we cannot have any goal other than to win a sixth title. We won five in a row and we have the same team so there is no reason to change our target. It is only the start of the season so it is a bit early to talk about the title. We will be looking for a good start and we will see what we can do here.
Q: What do you think the competition will be like this year? Are we at the start of another exciting year-long battle?
SL Yes, I'm sure we will see them. In WRC we lost Subaru and Suzuki but now we have drivers like Chris (Atkinson) in the C4. I think we saw last year that the two cars that can win a rally were Ford and Citroen so I'm sure it will be even more exciting because they are still here.
Q: You won this event when it was first run in 2007. It was held in November that year; would you say conditions are similar to then or are they different?
SL I think it is quite similar at the moment. There is no snow but it will rain and that is normal weather for here. The biggest difference will be the tyres because we have no choice -- it is only a soft tyre that we can use. If the conditions are right then it will be a good choice of tyre. If it is raining a lot it will be very difficult because we have no rain tyre. That is the main difference between now and two years ago. We accept that condition.
Q: Pirelli have the option of two tyres here in Ireland, the soft compound PZero asphalt tyre and in case of snow and ice the Sottozero. With the weather so unpredictable at this time of year, does it reassure you to have a choice?
SL I don't think the weather will be that bad. The snow tyre would need a lot of water but we will see.
Q: I understand each crew is permitted to have a safety car on this rally. Why is this so important to you?
SL I think in this rally it is incredibly important. It would be much more complicated if there was only one safety crew to find the danger corner after corner. If there is a mistake on only one corner it would be one mistake too many. We cannot take that chance. I don't think it is too expensive to have one crew per team in this particularly difficult and tricky rally.
Q: Last year you won 11 events and there are only 12 events this year. Can you win 12 this year?
SL No, last year was nearly perfect, so I will just try to win them all but who knows.
Q: Chris, a brand new team and a brand new car for you - the Citroen Junior Team and the Citroen C4. How are you feeling about things going into this rally?
CA: I guess there is pressure. I want to build my way into the rally and see how it goes. I can't expect to be on the pace right way and I have to be realistic. It is going to be an amazingly tricky event given the conditions and you never know what will happen. The guys (Loeb and Hirvonen) are going to push hard from the start. For me, I have the one event but you have to balance caution with trying to stay on the pace. I have to take risks.
Q: It's just over four weeks since Subaru announced its departure form the WRC, did you think at the time you would find another drive so quickly?
CA: It is obviously exciting and I have been a little bit nervous leading up to this event. First time in a new car and first time in a Citroen. It is exciting and nervous excitement. It is a tough event to choose for your first event in a new car and it will be tricky.
Q: You've had a day's testing, how did that go?
CA: We had a test in the north of France. It was -10 degrees and slippy so not easy to drive and it was a good lead up to the event. It wasn't the same as Ireland but the factory guys have had a test here and that will help. I am just trying to get comfortable with the car.
Q: Is there more pressure on you to impress a new team?
CA: For me at the start I guess there were no opportunities so I am very grateful for the Citroen Junior Team to make this car available to me and I look forward to racing it for the first time. I also have to be a little bit cautious.
Q: Mikko, last season you were runner-up in the Drivers' Championship and the battle all year was really between you and Sebastien. Will it be harder this year with so many other drivers improving?
MH: It was a great battle last year but you want that Championship every time. It is going to be very difficult but it has to be our aim with every new season. It is a fresh start and we want to win.
Q: You said at the end of the season that you felt you didn't push enough during the first half of the season; will we see different tactics from you this time around?
MH: We weren't fast enough throughout. We need to be winning more rallies. It is obviously very difficult but we need to be more aggressive.
Q: This year the regulations have changed and the amount of mechanics allowed to work on the car has reduced from six to four, however the drivers and co-drivers can assist. Are you prepared for that possibility?
MH: If that is the case I am happy to do it. It looks good in the service park to see a driver on a car -- it looks good for the spectators and I will be happy to do it if necessary.
Q: Urmo, we see you in a different team this year, you move to Stobart and a Ford Focus WRC. Have you tested the car at all?
UA: I feel very fortunate because there are not so many places left in world rallying where you can drive a very good car in a very professional team. I cannot say I am looking forward to Rally Ireland because it will be very, very difficult but I hope we manage to do well. We have tested the car and it felt very easy to drive and I think it suits me.
Q: How many rounds will we see you contesting with the squad this year?
UA: At the moment we can drive two rallies but still we are hoping for eight.
Q: Your first round with the team and you are nominated to score Manufacturer points -- are you feeling the pressure to perform well?
UA: I think I have rallied enough to know what is rallying and it doesn't matter what level you are, you have to cope with pressure.
FIA JUNIOR WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
Q: Aaron, a totally different car and team for you this year; you will be with Suzuki Team Europe in a Suzuki Swift S1600. Your thoughts?
AB: Yeah, it is indeed. Everything is new and it a bit difficult for us to get a good feeling again for the car and it is a very challenging rally. The stages are very tough; the roads are very narrow and there is a lot of mud so we will have to find a rhythm so that we will survive until the end. It is a good feeling, the team is very professional so we are very happy.
Q: You competed in Galway just a couple of weeks ago with the car, what did you think?
AB: It was quite similar at least for the first three stages but still we had a big storm with 140km winds and heavy rain and sometimes you came over a crest in sixth gear and the street was covered in water. I hope it will not be as bad even if the weather forecast isn't too good. Still, it was a good experience. The mechanics worked well. We had a problem on the first day and the mechanics had to work all night but everyone was friendly and did their jobs.
Q: You finished second in the Championship last year, is the aim to go one better this year? Looking at the entries so far for the JWRC, who do you consider to be your main challenger?
AB: We have a lot to lose and only a little to gain but we are here to compete. Of course, it will be difficult; maybe there aren't as many as last year but the quality is still very high.
Q: Kevin, you are back representing KNAF this year in a Renault Clio R3. Are you looking forward to the season ahead?
KA: I'm very happy we could find the budget again this year and the reason we stayed with Renault is that it is a reliable car and I have good support from Renault this year. I have had an engine update and I think the gap between the Super 16 and our R3 will be much closer.
Q: Did you think you would be at a major disadvantage in Ireland before that change came about?
KA: If it's muddy, not really because we have a 2L engine. We have much torque so if it's very slippy we can adjust the throttle and I think this will help in the R3 if you compare it with the Super 1600 because the engine of the Super 1600 is all or nothing and that makes it very difficult for them.
Q: KNAF won the ASN classification last year, do you think that helped in bringing the team back this year?
KA: I think so. It showed we have good drivers and a good programme.
Q: Let's talk about the rally itself, you have been out on recce, what do you think?
KA: It is very different from Holland! Besides the fact that it's not a flat landscape, there are so many high speed jumps and bumps on this type of surface. I think that will be the hardest part because I'm not used to it. I don't know yet how the car will react on the high speed jumps but I think like everyone else we will just have to see what happens.
Q: Aaron, what would you be happy walking away from Ireland with? Do you feel pressure considering that after finishing second last year you are favourite?
AB: You always feel pressure but I don't think it is better or worse than last year. We still have to get results and we still have to get to the finish line. You still have to be as fast as possible without destroying the car.
Q: Last year coming second you won the C2 Junior Experience which means we will see you in a WRC car. Do you know in which event that is likely to happen?
AB: It looks like we will start in Greece.
Q: And how difficult will that be do you think?
AB: I have no idea because I have not sat in a WRC car yet. It is a dream come true through. I hope we will have a test before and I will have some experience in a WRC car. I have heard so much about it and it is just amazing that I have the opportunity to try such a car. What else can I say!
Q: Kevin, 13th in the Championship last year in your rookie year, so you have picked up a lot of experience from last year. What did you learn that you can bring into this year?
KA: Nearly everything. I hadn't driven on gravel before. We gained a lot of experience in every aspect of rallying and the good thing is that I am back in the same car and I'm used to the car now and I think it is a good car for me.