Citroen heads for the land of the rising sun The anti-penultimate round of the 2007 World Rally Championship takes crews to Japan where Citroen Sport has entered two Citroen C4 WRCs for its usual line-up of Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani...
Citroen heads for the land of the rising sun
The anti-penultimate round of the 2007 World Rally Championship takes crews to Japan where Citroen Sport has entered two Citroen C4 WRCs for its usual line-up of Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Marti.
After back-to-back visits to Catalonia and Corsica, WRC competitors barely had a week to catch their breath before heading out to Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, which hosts the calendar's 14th round, the action of which takes in gravel roads near the city of Obihiro. Since its incorporation in the sport's premier series in 2004, Rally Japan has established a reputation as a complex rally. To begin with, the glum road sections from service to the stages are so long that they call for somewhat unfamiliar event timing! But while this could give a negative image of the event, the specific features of the stages themselves make up for the lengthy run-outs and give the rally a distinctive flavour.
Although not exceptional, the stages are very challenging and tend to be fast and narrow, and even very narrow in p laces. The thick vegetation that lines them can conceal trees trumps or rocks, while the surface is generally slippery at the best of times and becomes extremely treacherous in the wet. Road order and the amount of 'road-sweeping' that needs to be done can influence times first time through.
Sebastien Loeb, who will be second on the road on Day 1 thanks to his ranking in the provisional Drivers' standings , will be able to profit from the lines of his rival on the Friday. Along with his co-driver Daniel Elena, he notched up his 35th world class win in Corsica and currently trails the championship leader by just four points. The objective of the three-time World Champions will obviously be to close the gap even further and, after coming out of last year's Japanese thriller on top, they are fully aware of what is required of them this time round.
Driving at maximum attack over the fast Japanese stages calls for a certain amount of experience of the event, which is something Dani Sordo does not yet have. This will only be his second visit to Obihiro, so he faces a steep learning curve, although that doesn't mean he won't be aiming for another top result.
Indeed, both Citroen crews will be able to count on the speed of the Citroen C4 WRC to target a strong finish in conditions that promise to be a cocktail of what they have already encountered this year in Portugal, Argentina and New Zealand. The C4 showcased its potential on all three of these events and the Japanese terrain should also suit the car.
"I think we can expect another exciting but difficult fight in Japan," says Guy Frequelin. "Sebastien, Daniel and the Citroen C4 need to try to win if they are to steal more points from Marcus Gronholm who will be a tough opponent, as we saw last year. Dani and Marc also have a fight on their hands, but more against the terrain and their lack of experience. For the car, this is another new rally which has a lot of specific features, but everyone at Citroen Sport is very much looking forward to the challenge that awaits us in Japan."
The objective on the two asphalt rounds you just contested was to close the points gap with Marcus Gronholm, and that's what Sebastien Loeb did...
"To stay in the title chase, Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena needed to win in Spain and Corsica, and they succeeded. Dani Sordo also came second ahead of Gronholm in Catalonia and that enabled Seb to gain four points, plus a further two in Corsica. The gap now stands at four. We had to go well on the two asphalt events and we ended up getting both Citroen C4 WRCs onto the podium each time. Citroen Sport rose well to the occasion, which means we are still in the fight, although the rest of the year promises to be just as difficult."
Rally Japan is next up. What will the mission be for your crews there?
"If our rival finishes second behind Sebastien and Daniel in Obihiro, the gap will be down to just two points, with two events remaining. It is therefore extremely important for Seb to try to repeat his 2006 win which would keep his chances alive before heading for Ireland, and then Wales. For Dani and Marc, the objective will be to try to be as consistent and quick as possible with a view to gleaning as much information as they can for next year."
What are the main characteristics of the Japanese round?
"It isn't an easy rally at all. Indeed, it's never easy to drive at speed over narrow roads that offer little grip. On top of that, many corners are concealed by tall grass which can hide certain hazards. At this time of year, the potentially changeable weather has to be taken onboard, too. A remarkable thing about the visit to Japan is the hospitality. The event is growing in stature every year and this popular fervour is positive both for the sport and for the image of Citroen which is gaining more and more fans."
You have just made up six of the ten points that separated you from Marcus Gronholm. Are your pleased with that?
"I am effectively delighted to have won the back-to-back rounds in Spain and Corsica. That wasn't a foregone conclusion. Everyone said we were favourites, but neither event was easy. We needed to go out and win them! Before Spain, I needed to win the five remaining rallies. After Corsica, I still need to win three. We're getting there, but the challenge is as tough as ever. Neither of us can afford to make the slightest mistake..."
Japan didn't use to be one of your favourite rounds. Did your 2006 win change that in any way?
"After the finish of last year's event, all the talk was about the fact that it was our 27th WRC win. Daniel and I prefer to recall the way we won it. The fight rarely gets that close, especially on the final day, and I rate it as one of my finest victories. With hindsight and the mountain bike accident I had afterwards, you could say we did the right thing by pulling out all the stops to win. The points we scored avoided us having to compete again at the end of the season. Does that make Rally Japan a better event to my eyes? Possibly. Nobody likes getting up early or driving for hours on road sections but, happily, the stages are interesting. The most striking thing about the event, however, is the welcome we receive and the big change it makes to what we are accustomed to."
Are you targeting another win?
"Given the number of events to come after Japan and also given the current gap in the championship, we don't really have any alternative! We need to try to finish ahead of Marcus Gronholm. If we succeed, and even if he finishes second, we will still be in with a chance for the title. We will have an even better chance, of course, if he finishes lower than second. It won't be easy because he is quick in Japan, but we will try to put the pressure on him and, at the same time, try not to make any mistakes."
Finishing second and third on the two asphalt rallies was a result, no?
"I was happy with my podium finish in Salou, but I was less pleased with the way it went in Corsica, I didn't succeed in making the most of my Citroen C4 WRC's potential and I also had some problems which the technical team are looking at to try to understand what happened. That said, it was only my second attempt at the Tour de Corse in a WRC car, so it wasn't so bad, although I had been hoping to beat Marcus Gronholm in order to help Sebastien and Daniel. Perhaps we will succeed in doing that in Ireland. Before then, however, we've got Rally Japan to tackle..."
Both the country and the rally were new to you last year. What do remember of the 2006 event?
"Before the start, I tried to build up a picture of what I was going to find by asking lots of questions, especially to Sebastien. Recce didn't go too well, though, and I ended up making lots of corrections to my notes during the event, which is quite rare. Finding the ideal pace wasn't easy and, despite the strengths of my car, I didn't feel confident. Finally, our exclusion after the finish wasn't a pleasant experience either. Even so, I have fond memories of the country and the huge crowds that turned out on the road sections and at service."
After two rallies where you were able to target a podium, what is your objective in Japan?
"I still have a great deal to learn about Rally Japan and there will also be some sections that are new to me this year, so that doesn't play in my favour. I will try to use the experience I gained in 2006 to avoid making the same mistakes. I don't know whether we will succeed in giving Seb a helping hand. We will do our best, but it is perhaps more reasonable to target a top-five finish."
The 2007 Rally Japan in brief...
* This is the fourth year that Rally Japan counts toward the WRC since its inaugural inclusion in the calendar in 2004.
* The event again takes place in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four principal islands. All the event's facilities are based in Obihiro, capital of the Tokachi agricultural region. The Kita Aikoku Community Square service park is situated some 6km to the south of Obihiro. The principal media room is in the Tokachi Plaza, while an annex media room will be set up at the service park.
* The time difference between Japan (UTC+9) and continental Europe is 7 hours. When it is 11am in Paris, it is 6pm in Obihiro. The local currency is the Yen. JPY 1, 000 6.
* The total length of the 2007 event is 1,575.79km, including 350.19km divided into 27 stages (11 different ).
* Rally Japan is paired with September's Rally New Zealand. The engines and chassis are the same for the two events and were sealed after New Zealand. The engines will go on to contest Wales Rally GB, but not the chassis. The pairing system also dictates limited numbers of front and rear subframes and steering racks. Four of each (one per car, plus two spares) are authorised for New Zealand and Japan. They are not linked to any one C4 WRC in particular and can be used freely on either car.
* Two gearboxes and differentials per car were sealed for New Zealand and Japan.
* Tyres the quota per driver is 60 tyres, of which 35 may be used (event + shakedown). Barcode lists and the pattern choice had to be nominated by Thursday September 13.
* An autograph signing session will take place on Thursday October 25 at 18.30 in Obihiro's town centre before the start ceremony which starts at 19.30.
* Note: Little is new regarding the stages, although the Cup Kamuy and Kimun Kamuy stages haven't been used since 2004, and SS1/5 hasn't been used in this direction since 2004 either. Rikubetsu, Puray, Niueo, Sipirkakim, Panke Nikorpet and Penke are all identical to 2006. The super-special is still organised next to the service park but has been slightly modified this year. The 2007 rally takes place one and a half months later in the year than it did in 2006.
* Citroen won the 2006 Rally Japan with Sebastien Loeb, Daniel Elena and the Xsara WRC.