Following in Carlos Sainz's footsteps... The second half of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship kicks off with another trip across the equator, this time to the Argentine winter. Two of the four Xsara WRCs present in the southern hemisphere...
Following in Carlos Sainz's footsteps...
The second half of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship kicks off with another trip across the equator, this time to the Argentine winter.
Two of the four Xsara WRCs present in the southern hemisphere round have been entered by Team Citroen Total. The first of these is for defending World Champions Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena who currently top this year's provisional Drivers' points table. Seb and Daniel will be looking to follow in the footsteps Carlos Sainz and Marc Marti, winners of the championship's last visit to Villa Carlos Paz. Driving the N2 Xsara will be Francois Duval who takes over from the same Carlos Sainz. The young Belgian will be joined in the car by a new co-driver, Sven Smeets.
As in Greece, two privately-entered, Kronos Racing-run Citroens will also be present for Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor and Xavier Pons/Carlos del Barrio.
The switch from the Mediterranean trio of hot 'n rough rallies to Argentina sees the 2005 calendar mark a clean break and the drivers always look forward to their annual visit to the highly varied stages of the Sierra de Cordoba. Rally Argentina effectively offers a broad spectrum of conditions, which vary from slow to very fast, with a large number of jumps which launch the cars into often spectacular poses, numerous high-speed water splashes and surfaces that change from hard-packed gravel to sand. "For the drivers, Argentina is tremendous fun," says Sebastien Loeb.
Another characteristic of the event is its cool, sometimes wintry temperatures which are nonetheless outweighed by the warm and fervent welcome always given by the joyous, connoisseur and passionate spectators. The organisers claim that a total crowd of 1 million turns out in the Punilla, Calamuchita and Traslasierra valleys.
On the pace from its very first attempt at this event in 2003, the Xsara won outright in 2004, proving the ease with which it has adapted to the Argentine terrain. The team has profited from the data collected during its last two outings there as well as during testing in southern Spain to fine-tine its Argentina set-up. Sebastien tested on June 8th, with Francois taking over on June 9th/10th. Both drivers were particularly pleased with this session which also included tyre testing work.
Two questions remain however: how will the weather be during the rally and to what extent will the anticipated cooler temperatures alter the balance of power that has seen Seb, Daniel and the Citroen/Michelin package claim five wins in a row?
The Versailles-Satory team's legendary caution does not prevent it from being confident and hopeful, however. In Seb and Francois, Citroen's line-up in Villa Carlos Paz features the drivers who finished 2nd and 3rd in the 2004 event. The Reds are clearly dreaming of a sixth consecutive win and Guy Frequelin has promised that... "we will do everything in our power to try!"
Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, Kinetic, OZ, AIS, Meteo France and Citroen Financement are Team Citroen Total's partners in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Questions to Guy Frequelin
With six wins to its name so far this season, including a run of five in a
row, your team is in impressive form. Are there any areas in which you can
"Nothing is ever perfect. It is always possible to improve. You can always perfect the set-up of the car, find solutions to ensure the drivers feel even more comfortable at the wheel, anticipate the potential difficulties of forthcoming events to maintain a very high level of reliability, etc. We also need to work in those areas that can help us win the events that have eluded us so far. There's still a great deal to do and the team knows it. It hasn't eased up in any way."
You have decided to call Francois Duval back up again. What was behind this
decision and what do you expect of him exactly?
"Francois knows both the car and all the rallies on the programme. There aren't all that many drivers who can say as much. Given the current potential of our car/tyre package, his natural, incontestable talent should easily permit him to do what I have asked of him. On that basis, I considered it would be a shame not to give him a further chance. I expect him to achieve what Carlos Sainz achieved so magnificently for us. No more, no less."
Citroen didn't take long to adapt the Xsara to the Argentine stages. The car
was in the fight for victory in 2003 before finishing 1st and 2nd in 2004.
Is a sixth straight WRC win possible?
"We were effectively involved in the battle for first place in 2003 and last year we won, although we didn't dominate. We were up there on Marcus Gronholm's pace and his retirement enabled us to pick up a superb one-two finish. I hope we have progressed sufficiently to run in front this time round and that the car will be as reliable as it has been in recent rallies. That said, we have just completed a sequence of rallies that all featured similar characteristics. The switch to Argentina has now reshuffled the pack and that inevitably raises certain questions, including what the weather will be like. So as far as us scoring a sixth consecutive win is concerned, the only thing I can say for sure is that we will do everything in our power to try..."
...to Sebastien Loeb...
Your win in Greece was your fifth in a row and your sixth of 2005. That has
placed something of a spotlight on certain rally records. Do you attach any
importance to these statistics?
"After the Acropolis Rally, it all took a bit of time to sink in. It's always nice to progress in your chosen sport, including on the statistics front which is something I share with my co-driver, Daniel, the Xsara and the Citroen team. The figures remain. For the moment, however, my sights are set on the future. My immediate objective is to try and win again, beginning with Rally Argentina, and to try and win the championship, both championships... If that allows us to continue our current run, then so much the better!"
Ever since your first visit to Argentina, you have always enjoyed this
event. Finishing 2nd last year must have reinforced that feeling...
"When I came for the recce in 2002, I immediately took a liking to the country, the impression of space and the sensation its gives you of being somewhere else. Since 2003, I have also been able to appreciate the stages, especially their variety. There are some fast stages in the Calamuchita region. Others are technically very demanding, very slow and narrow, such as Mina Clavero and El Condor which take you through some superb scenery... The stages can also be bumpy and/or slippery. In short, there is everything for the drivers to really enjoy themselves, not to mention the many thousands of spectators who cheer you on. As far as atmosphere goes, this rally is really the best!"
The route is identical to last year's and you face a relatively long day of
'road sweeping'. What are your chances of winning?
"Running first on the road will probably be a handicap throughout the opening day. The stages of Leg 1 were the same last year and I was surprised to see that I lost even more time second time through once the sandy surface had been cut up by the first run. That said, my direct rivals in the championship will be running in a similar position and will face more or less the same conditions as me. After that, we will see whether the cooler temperatures in comparison with recent rounds will have any effect on the relative competitiveness of the different teams. In my opinion, our mission promises to be a little more difficult. But whichever way it goes, I intend to give it everything I've got..."
...and to Francois Duval...
How did you take missing two events?
"I saw it as a punishment, and doubtlessly a justified punishment after the mistakes I made. I absolutely had to stay on the road and I went off. On top of that, Stephane chose to stop being my co-driver and informed Guy Frequelin of his decision. It's true that the relationship hadn't been perfect between us in recent rallies. But all that's now behind us. I am back with a new co-driver, Sven Smeets, and I want to prove that I am capable of achieving what the team expects of me."
You have competed twice in Argentina. What do you think of the stages?
"I like the stages and their variety. They are not easy though. Last year they caught out quite a lot of drivers. There are badly placed rocks in the apexes and jumps which launch the car in all directions. I am quite pleased that the route hasn't changed since last year. It means we already have all the notes and that will enable Sven and me to concentrate on fine-tuning the way we work together. This process began during our pre-Argentina testing, continued during the recce for Greece and then during our pre-Finland testing. It's OK..."
What will your objective be in Argentina?
"To finish. I want to get back into the rhythm progressively. My relationship with Sven will also need to settle in in actual rally conditions. I will be careful to keep clear of mistakes, to stay on the road. I should be able to finish around fourth or fifth place. I have already done that in the past..."