Rally New Zealand: Citro?n preview

Citroën are the 'challengers' in NZ! The America's Cup barely over, Auckland turns its attention to another world class sporting event in the form of Rally New Zealand, Round 4 of the 2003 World Rally Championship. Citroën has entered three ...

Citroën are the 'challengers' in NZ!

The America's Cup barely over, Auckland turns its attention to another world class sporting event in the form of Rally New Zealand, Round 4 of the 2003 World Rally Championship. Citroën has entered three Xsara WRCs for its nominated crews, Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti. For the team's technical staff, this trip to the opposite side of the planet from its Versailles-Satory base promises to be a journey of discovery, which explains the motivating sense of adventure that has prevailed during its habitually rigorous preparation for the event.

Citroën Sport has taken up the option offered by the WRC regulations to homologate new parts for the Xsara from April 1st. On the engine front, these concern a new crankshaft, a new exhaust manifold, a new turbo housing and a new intercooler. As far as the chassis is concerned, the rear wing has been modified with the addition of five upright blades on its upper side.

With pre-event testing now prohibited on-site for rallies taking place outside of Europe, Citroën has prepared for the forthcoming encounter on a test stage in Catalonia featuring similar conditions to those the team will find in New Zealand and which hold no secrets for Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz. All three Xsara drivers were totally satisfied with the car's set-up and handling on completion of this work.

Unanimously acclaimed as one of the drivers' favourites, Rally New Zealand features a number of parameters that are not easy to grasp. For example, running order into the stages is of capital importance because of the top layer of loose gravel that the first cars through have to brush aside. If the going is dry, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz, who start Leg 1 second and third on the road respectively, will be at a disadvantage. Rain would change everything however since it would make the going slippery for everyone, and not just for the so-called 'road sweepers'. The big question mark therefore concerns how much the switch from a southern hemisphere spring date to a new autumn slot will affect the weather during the rally?

"For us," concludes Guy Fréquelin, "this event is an equation with a number of unknowns. I hope we will succeed in resolving it but I remain cautious for the moment. With the competition getting fiercer all the time, I would be happy if we concluded our maiden visit to New Zealand with two cars inside the top six, and one of these on the podium."

Telefónica Movistar, Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, OZ, AIS and Citroën Financement are Citroën-Total's partners in the World Rally Championship.

Questions to Guy Fréquelin.

With the exception of Colin and Carlos, New Zealand is all-new territory for the Citroën team. Is this rally likely to be the most difficult of the year for you?

"We know so little about this rally that it is even difficult for me to comment on whether it will be the most difficult or not! We did our pre- event testing in Catalonia, near Manresa, in a region where the roads are as close a match as possible to the stages we will find in New Zealand terrain as described to us by Colin and Carlos. All three drivers were satisfied with the results of our work but we cannot guarantee the set-up we found will be the most effective. If it's not, the key will be our capacity to react swiftly."

The paradox of this event is that two of your drivers are perfectly familiar with the terrain while your technical staff has no previous knowledge of it. How did the transfer of data between the two go?

"Having two drivers in the squad who have each competed in New Zealand eleven times is naturally reassuring. That said, it is not possible for them to communicate 100% of their experience. Nor even 90% or 80%. Despite the invaluable input we have had from Carlos and Colin, we are at a disadvantage as far as local knowledge is concerned. Our build up to the rally has been satisfactory but I don't suppose our rivals have been standing still. According to how the weather turns, stage start order on Day 1 could well end up playing a big role. So this event is really a big question mark for us..."

That was also the case in Turkey.

"Absolutely! In Turkey, I was eager to get an answer to the following question: how was the Xsara going to compare on slow, rough rallies? I now know. Similarly, I hope New Zealand answers another question: where does our car stand on fast, smooth gravel? We know the Xsara is competitive on asphalt, on snow and when the going gets rough. If it turns out that our work has placed the car on a par with our competitors on smooth gravel, it means we should be involved in the fight at the sharp end all season."

.to Carlos Sainz.

One month on, how does it feel looking back at your superb win in Turkey?

"A tremendous pleasure! I savoured it at the time and I'm still savouring it. It was special for a number of reasons. To begin with, it was my first success with Citroën. It was also an event new to the World Championship. Last but not least, it was my 25th win... The combination of all these considerations made me feel extremely happy!"

Walter Röhrl once said that the only limiting factor in New Zealand is the driver. Are you also a fan of the New Zealand stages?

"For rally drivers, it's one of the best events. You can concentrate totally on your driving without fearing for the car. The rally it resembles the most is Finland. I love its fast, flowing roads and its stages in general, even though some of the classics aren't run anymore. The only down side is that I find New Zealand is rather far from home. "

Given your experience of the event and in light of the test work the team has done, do you think the Xsara can get a good finish?

"It's difficult to say. I think we should go well, but predicting the outcome of the rally before the start is not easy. The Xsara was excellent in Turkey, but New Zealand is the complete opposite of what we found in Turkey... "

.to Colin McRae.

In 1993, you took your first World Championship win in New Zealand. What recollections do you have of that moment?

"My first visit to New Zealand was in 1989 as a privateer and I have excellent recollections of that. It's a super rally, and I have to say it's one of my favourites. In 1993, we were locked all along in a fierce fight with François Delecour. Winning after a good scrap is always better than winning because your opponents hit problems. It's more exciting, more gratifying. Being my first WRC win made it a very special moment. An achievement!"

You have frequently made the difference in the Motu stage. Do you regret that it's no longer run? What is your opinion of the stages in New Zealand?

"I don't miss Motu. It was a very twisty stage. Like Turkey or Cyprus. I think it's just that the first time I did it, I got the right feel, the right technique for it. A bit like Carlos in Turkey. It's the sort of stage where you have to have a good feeling. If you try too hard, you end up losing time. I have set some good times in Motu but I never got a particular kick from it. I prefer the faster stages. As far as the global route is concerned, it's a bit like the other rounds of the championship. The events are becoming so compact that you're losing some of the classic parts. When the rally went further south, the stages were really beautiful. Those in the north have less character."

You scored your first win in 1993... Another victory in 2003 would be an excellent way of celebrating that. Is that on the cards?

"If the going is dry, I won't be able to win unless the others hit trouble. Running second on the road on the first day puts me at a big disadvantage. Of course, anything can happen as the rally unfolds, and if it rains it will be a different story. If conditions are wet, our early start position won't be so much of a handicap, so we could do well."

.to Sébastien Loeb.

Your only experience of Rally New Zealand to date is last year's recce. What were your first impressions?

"There's absolutely nothing rough or dangerous about the stages and there's nowhere you have to ease off. You can just get on with the job of driving. There are a few steeply cambered corners of a type I've never come across before anywhere else. But in general the roads are both fast and flowing and you can get into a sort of rhythm without any sudden changes. It must be one of the best rallies. On top of that, the country is very hospitable and incredibly green. In a word, I liked everything I saw."

Given that you haven't done any testing on site, how have you prepared for this event?

"We have worked well. The roads we used in Catalonia were quite similar to what we will find in New Zealand, that is to say a hard packed base with a top covering of loose gravel... The car is nicely balanced and easy to drive. When you turn in, it does exactly what you want it to without the back end coming out. The suspension feels good too. I really think we have made tangible progress."

You are one of the few nominated drivers who have never competed before on this rally. What is your objective?

"My experience of the event at the start will amount to two recces; 2002 and 2003. That's not a lot. Of the next four rallies, I have only competed in one before, the Acropolis. In all the other three - New Zealand, Argentina and Cyprus -, my objective will be the same: to score points and try to keep up with the championship leaders before the next asphalt round. That doesn't mean I have forgotten my dream of winning on gravel this year. But that's going to be tough on rallies I've never done before."


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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , François Delecour , Sébastien Loeb , Walter Rohrl , Guy Frequelin , Derek Ringer , Marc Marti
Teams Citroën World Rally Team