CitroÃ«n returned from its exploratory visit to the World Championship's most distant fixture last year with five points in the bag thanks to SÃ©bastien Loeb's fourth place, a superb result for the Frenchman's maiden competitive outing to New ...
Citroën returned from its exploratory visit to the World Championship's most distant fixture last year with five points in the bag thanks to Sébastien Loeb's fourth place, a superb result for the Frenchman's maiden competitive outing to New Zealand. And it won't have escaped rugby union fans that five points, here in the homeland of the celebrated All Blacks, is exactly the same score as that awarded for a 'try'!
To convert this 'try' this time round and to build on the French team's totals in the 2004 Manufacturers' and Drivers' championships, Citroën has despatched two Xsara WRCs to Auckland for its usual crews Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (n°3) and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti (n°4). Both will be 2004-specification machines featuring the latest developments recently homologated by the FIA on April 1st.
"As far as the chassis goes," explains Technical Manager Jean-Claude Vaucard, "we have made use of the new regulations which now allow the material used for the wings to be changed while at the same time dictating a minimum weight of 320 kg for the body shell, complete with roll-cage. We have chosen to replace the Xsara's previous steel wings with composite material panels and that has led to a review of the car's overall weight distribution."
On the engine front, the Xsara has also profited from the annual homologation upgrades permitted by the regulations. "The crankshaft, conrods, pistons and flywheel are all new," confirms Citroën Sport's Technical Manager, "as are the exhaust manifold and turbo waste-gate."
All these new components have been tested over a period of months and were naturally run on Carlos Sainz and Sébastien Loeb's cars during the pre-New Zealand set-up test session organised near Manresa, Spain, where both drivers used identical tyres to those that make up their quota for the southern hemisphere event. Their personal allocations of 60 tyres each were registered on March 17th and are already en route for Auckland.
Following successive modifications to the regulations in Sweden and Mexico, the Rally New Zealand organisers have decided to apply the so-called 'Mille Pistes' format which divides the crews' reconnaissance into two phases: a first run on the Wednesday and Thursday followed by a second pass on the morning of each leg, shortly before tackling them competitively. New Zealand is also one of the few rounds to feature three different service park locations and the combination of all these factors has certainly made life busy for those members of the Versailles Satory-based team responsible for logistics and for analysing the regulations...
"Coming on top of the car's annual homologation, this complex, long haul rally has put an enormous workload on everyone in the team," confirms Guy Fréquelin. "I will be very happy if the end result makes it all worthwhile. I would like to see our Xsaras involved in the fight at the sharp end and, above all, I would like to see them both at the finish!"
Questions to Guy Fréquelin…
Q: What lessons did you draw from Rally Mexico?
Fréquelin: "Analysis of the results reveals that we were apparently competitive. Sébastien matched Petter Solberg's pace on the Friday, while Carlos was very close to Markko Märtin at the end of the rally and in a position to fight him for first place. Solberg's performance during Leg 2 cannot be ignored either, although he was no longer competing in the same context as those fighting for victory after the heavy time penalty he received. On this subject, I must say I approve the fact that Petter wasn't excluded and I hope the stewards' sporting decision will serve as jurisprudence. Finally, Mexico featured a number of innovations on the regulations front and these were all possible sources of error. We have looked carefully at the mistake we made concerning the nomination of Carlos' tyres on Day 2 to ensure it never happens again…"
Q: Rally New Zealand introduces two new parameters, the 'Mille Pistes' format and new 2004-configuration cars… including the Xsara.
Fréquelin: "This is the fourth round of the season and also the fourth different set of regulations, since Rally New Zealand has effectively chosen to adopt the 'Mille Pistes' concept. We have taken special care in preparing this aspect of the event. As far as the Xsara's evolutions are concerned following its latest homologation on April 1st, I have the same divided feelings I always have in this sort of situation. I am very optimistic because the gains achieved can only facilitate our work. However, I am also curious because I am eager to know how competitive the car will be. And, despite everything else, I'm a little tense… In spite of all the precautions we take validating new parts, the only true test bench for me is competition itself. So in this sense, Rally New Zealand represents a sort of baptism of fire… "
Q: There were some fast portions in Mexico, but New Zealand - along with Finland and Australia - is really one of the established havens of fast gravel. How do you believe you will fare? And, as we asked before Sweden, do you think you can win?
Fréquelin: "Last year in New Zealand we weren't up to the required level. Since then, we have had our post-Finland tests, we have competed in Australia, in Rally GB and, more recently still, in Mexico. It is undeniable that we are making progress… but so are our rivals. And this makes any attempt to predict the result uncertain, especially if you take into account the new developments mentioned previously. Whichever way it goes, I will be disappointed if we are not involved in the fight at the sharp end. If we are, then anything is possible… "
…to Sébastien Loeb…
Q: Despite the 60-hour return trip, you give the impression you are looking forward to the journey out to New Zealand…
Loeb: "I am indeed. From my very first visit in 2002, I adored the openness of this clean, green country and, above all, its fast, flowing stages which are kind on the cars. In driving terms, this rally's a must, one of my favourites. It was here last year that I first got to compare my times on gravel with those of Colin and Carlos and it was very satisfying to see that I was on their pace. The technical team had worked well for this event which was new to us and I was delighted to come away with fourth place."
Q: A year after your first top non-asphalt result, a lot of parameters have evolved…
Loeb: "Absolutely! Beginning with the way I drive. Last year, I was less tidy than I am today. I remember Guy Fréquelin describing to me the styles of Marcus Grönholm and Markko Märtin through the corners he watched. They were much less flamboyant than me, whereas I would indulge in nice slides. Today I drive more efficiently. At the same time, the Xsara has come on enormously. The latest steps forward following homologation on April 1st have not transformed the car. At our current level, we can only really progress bit by bit. Even so, the work is paying. I have a real if slight impression that the car is better, an impression confirmed by the stopwatch…"
Q: To score your first ever WRC win on gravel in New Zealand would have a certain panache about it…
Loeb: "Very probably. There's no harm in dreaming. But it's best to analyse the situation without getting carried away. Leg 1 will be new for everyone, and that suits me fine. The second say is identical to last year, and that too is OK with me. On the other hand, the three stages of Sunday's loop were not used last year. I receed them in 2002, but I have never driven them competitively. Another question mark concerns the 'Mille Pistes' system. I don't see what benefits it can bring, except for longer days for an identical stage distance. Furthermore, it promises to be difficult psychologically to switch from hard and fast competition to a loop of recce and then back battling with the stopwatch again. We'll just have to see how it goes! To sum up, given how competitive we were in Mexico - a good pointer because it was so varied -, I won't pretend that I don't hope to be quick and fighting for victory… while at the same time bearing in mind that it will be necessary to finish!"
…and to Carlos Sainz…
Q: You had a very good feeling with the Xsara in Sweden and you were hoping that it would be the same on the gravel in Mexico. Was that the case? And what is your opinion of the new regulations introduced in Mexico?
Sainz: "I was not as comfortable with the car in Mexico as I was in Sweden. We are still working to find the ideal set-up for the loose. The car has made significant progress on gravel and it is now quick on all types of surface. But I still believe we need to find the few additional tweaks that will make it more competitive still.
As far as the regulations introduced in Mexico are concerned, a number of remarks come to mind. There have been a lot of changes in rallying over the past ten or so years. Some are good, while in the case of others it would perhaps have been preferable to strike a balance between the benefits and the disadvantages.
A by-product of the principle of flexi-service, the ruling that obliges tyre choices to be registered in the zone prior to service has done away with all the excitement associated with this aspect of the sport: the different team strategies, all the spying that went on and the last minute changes that made it all so exhilarating, not only for the drivers and teams but also for the press. To conclude, I would just like changes to be really evaluated before they are introduced…"
Q: You have tested the latest-spec Xsara complete with its newly homologated parts. How do you feel about them?
Sainz: "They are small evolutions, not revolutions. Engine evolutions are actually often difficult to feel, although the slightest improvement is of course always welcome. Similarly, the switch to composite wings is positive for weight distribution. As far as the brakes and handling go, they are not strictly speaking evolutions but ongoing work in our quest to achieve the best possible set-up."
Q: You weren't very successful last year in Rally New Zealand which is one of your favourite rallies. This will be your 13th start. What sort of result are you hoping for? Do you believe you could celebrate your birthday with a win?
Sainz: "I really don't know. I think it will be difficult. Mexico was new for everyone. In New Zealand, for the first time this season, everybody will be driving 2004-specification cars. We will see how we compare on the stages we all know and see how the new balance of power is…"