Adelante, Xsara! Forward, Xsara! After victory in each of the first two rallies of 2004, CitroÃ«n heads for Mexico as leader of both the Drivers' and Manufacturers' provisional championship standings. To defend its position, two Xsaras have been...
Forward, Xsara! After victory in each of the first two rallies of 2004, Citroën heads for Mexico as leader of both the Drivers' and Manufacturers' provisional championship standings. To defend its position, two Xsaras have been entered for the team's usual crews, Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti.
So much about the year's third round is new, including of course the exciting prospect that this will be the FIA World Rally Championship's maiden visit to Mexico, a country whose very name conjures up images of history, adventure and fiesta.
For competitors, the Atlantic crossing will be a chance to discover an event with a different flavour. With a route that fits into a 50 km x 50 km square, the newcomer to the series features a particularly compact format with stages representing 38% of the total distance covered, a ratio comparable with that of the Tour of Corsica.
Another key parameter is the altitude at which the event runs. "The highest point we reach on a stage is 2,700 metres, as in Kenya", points out Citroën Sport's technical chief, Jean-Claude Vaucard. "However, the route's average altitude is 2,300 metres, and that's higher than the Safari. We have naturally come up with a specific engine tuning that takes this particularity into account."
The gravel tracks that wind through the hills between León and Guanajuato are extremely varied, not only in terms of profile but also their rhythm and width. Meanwhile, the rally takes place in the middle of the dry season, so the hard-based surfaces are not expected to cut up. These features led Citroën to the south of Spain, near Malaga, to locate conditions that were as similar as possible to the real thing for testing purposes. Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz took turns at the wheel during the five-day session (February 9th-13th) which focused on fine-tuning the Xsara's set-up and working through the range of products proposed by Michelin. The latter has become an especially important exercise following the latest limitation concerning tyre quantities first implemented in Sweden. Each driver now has a maximum personal quota, with each tyre identifiable by a barcode. Also, given that Rally Mexico is a 'flyaway' event, Seb and Carlos had to choose their tyres for the event and communicate the list to the governing body 3½ weeks prior to the start.
Another new feature introduced in Mexico concerns the service parks (with the exception of the first service halts on the Saturday and Sunday) and their use of the so-called flexi-service concept. The idea is that the cars belonging to the same team are worked on one after the other, and not at the same time, as has been the case until now. The objective is to enable those competitors who so wish to reduce their service staffing levels since a single team will be able to look after both cars. This system will require the second car to wait in a holding control, during which time the driver will have to announce his tyre choice for the following loop of stages, something that was previously done just before leaving service.
With so much new to discover, Guy Fréquelin predicts that victory could well go... "to the team that succeeds in adapting the quickest!" Given Citroën's track record in this domain, his team has every right to believe in its chances...
Two consecutive wins for the Xsara, including a repeat success in Monte Carlo and a historic victory in Sweden... What was the reaction after what must be one of the key moments in Citroën's competition history?
"I have tried to maintain the confidence boost these results generated while at the same time ensuring that nobody gets euphoric. I took the precaution of reminding the team that there is every chance we will experience less pleasant moments. Without going as far as being pessimistic, this was a point I stressed so that we are ready, mentally, should things not go so well in the future. But I don't expect there to be any fall off whatsoever in the team's motivation. Rally Mexico is new and will be different from the first two rounds of the season, so that will ensure added anticipation. We are very much looking forward to it!"
How have you prepared for this step into the unknown? Based on your preparation and the information you have collected, what do you see as being the keys to success in Mexico?
"Sébastien did the recce last year and he was accompanied during that trip by an engineer. We used the data they brought back to locate a suitable test stage here in Europe. We have also looked carefully at the parameters that are specific to Mexico, notably the high altitude at which the event runs. We have worked well, but the unknown factor is still important and perhaps conceals something we haven't spotted or planned for... the proverbial grain of sand. The key in that case will lie in the team's ability react quickly to make the necessary adjustments..."
Given all this, how do you evaluate Citroën's chances?
"It's difficult to quantify our chances in a rally we don't know. We showed at the end of last year that the Xsara can be quick on all types of surface. The Monte Carlo Rally confirmed that our potential hasn't faded and in Sweden we broadened the range of situations in which we are competitive. I would say we now have the necessary strength in depth to enable us to make the most of any situation. We will be out to win, but we will see how we stand at the end of Day 1. Our objective, as usual, is dictated by the regulations: to finish with both cars inside the top-five, and at least one of them on the podium..."
You already have a certain amount of experience of the Mexican stages. Could you describe them? Does the event resemble any other rallies?
"I effectively did the recce last year and that enabled me to discover the rally's basic setting, namely the hilly region between León and Guanajuato. The stages themselves were varied, with a mixture of slow and quick portions, very quick even in places. The width of the roads was also variable according to their importance and there was a big altitude difference, but the hard surface of the stages shouldn't cut up. The slowest parts are remininscent of Cyprus, but overall the rally is more like Argentina where the stages are very varied too. The 2004 route seems fairly similar to last year's, although a number of stages will be run in the opposite direction..."
You were very confident before Sweden following the work that had been done to the Xsara. Do you feel the same way going into the season's first gravel fixture?
"Absolutely. Since Australia, we have succeeded in making the Xsara competitive and very easy to drive on the loose. Our preparation for Mexico focused on detail work. There was no question of changing everything; more a case of fine-tuning the instrument if you like. The test base we used for Mexico in Spain was fairly similar, in my view, to what we will find when we get out there. I am happy with the basic set-up we established and my feeling with the car is excellent. Of course, it remains to be seen how it all works on a terrain that is new to us, but I am not unduly worried... "
Your two wins this year have given you a sizeable lead at the top of the Drivers' points table already. Does this put extra pressure on you? How will you approach the third round?
"It will be a case of attacking hard from the start to see how we compare and attempting to stay with the leading pack. Then, if we are in a position to go for victory, we will naturally try. If that appears difficult, we will always be able to aim for a good finish... I think you are under the most pressure in fact when your are behind, when a strong result is vital to stay in the chase. Personally, I feel confident being in the lead of the championship. I say to myself that if for any reason the rally doesn't go well, I won't lose too much ground in the points standings..."
What is your initial analysis of the new season from a personal viewpoint now that the two winter rounds of the championship are behind you?
"It is quite difficult to come to any conclusions after just two events, especially after two such specific rallies as the Monte Carlo and Sweden. You get an idea of where you stand in comparison with the competition, you can see how the different cars compare, but you are also conscious that the year has only just begun. The team has got off to a very good start. On a personal level, my results have been less emphatic. But to my eyes, the crucial thing is that I have never felt so confident driving the Xsara as I did in Sweden! I hope I will have the same feeling on gravel, that the car will be just as easy to drive and that I will be just as one with it. If that does prove the case, then I am sure I can be quick..."
Do you know Mexico? It's a Spanish-speaking country, so do you believe you will get as much support as you do in Argentina and Catalonia? Is that a big benefit?
"I know Mexico because I have already been there on holiday, but I don't know the León area. The feedback I have heard concerning the rally is very positive and I am sure it will be well organised. The fact that I speak the language is clearly a help, especially as far as the support from the locals is concerned. It's always good for motivation to be able to sense their passion and fervour... "
Indonesia, Cyprus, Turkey... You won the first visit to three of the latest new rallies to the championship. Are you a 'first-time-out' specialist? Is there a secret? What is your objective in Mexico?
"Every rally is different. Honestly, I don't believe I'm a first-time-out specialist, as you put it. I don't think there's a secret either. Perhaps I simply got a grasp of certain events more quickly than the others and that helped me win on those occasions. As I have already said, each new event is a fresh adventure, a fresh challenge. Personally, I find that very stimulating. In Mexico, I am hoping for a good finish. I must score points to reduce my deficit in the Drivers' championship and also to help Citroën stay in front in the Manufacturers' standings."