The Xsara in the dragon's lair Round 12 of the 16-round FIA World Rally Championship takes the Xsara WRCs of SÃ©bastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti to the home of Y Ddraig Goch, the celebrated red dragon that has proudly...
The Xsara in the dragon's lair
Round 12 of the 16-round FIA World Rally Championship takes the Xsara WRCs of Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti to the home of Y Ddraig Goch, the celebrated red dragon that has proudly appeared on the flag of the Principality since the year 678.
For the fifth consecutive season, Britain's WRC round - which featured as many as 85 stages in 1968 - is today held entirely within a compact rectangle bordered by the Brecon Beacons National Park to the north and, to the south, by the Bristol Channel over which fickle rain clouds often blow in.
This year's 'RAC Rally', as the tens of thousands of spectators still tend to call it, marks a break with the past by trading the cold, foggy, muddy conditions of November - its date in the calendar since 1959 - for a new, late summer slot. As a result, it is no longer the season's final, last chance showdown it has so frequently been (with the exception of just six years) since the championship's creation in 1973.
This change brings with it a number of changes and almost makes the Welsh-based event a new fixture to be discovered, much like the Rallies of Japan and Sardinia that flank it in the calendar. Since its first visit to Cardiff in 2002, the Citroën team has collected valuable experience of the event, although this will need to be reviewed as a function of its new date... "There is clearly a higher chance that the going will be drier at this time of the year," says Citroën Sport's Technical Manager Jean-Claude Vaucard. "That in turn implies higher average speeds which will make the rougher parts more demanding still. It's a factor we have taken into account in our preparation."
But while the rally's revised slot makes warmer temperatures more likely, it by no means rules out wet weather, something that would complicate the picture somewhat, especially if the rain takes the form of showers. Given the current tyre regulations, this will make it a highly complex to event to call, beginning with the Monday preceding the event when drivers will have to communicate their tyre list to the FIA. "To cover all the conditions possible," continues Jean-Claude Vaucard, "it will be necessary to nominate the full spectrum of tyre options in sufficient quantities, from the softest to the hardest rubber, plus two intermediate compounds. That, however, would mean exceeding the quota. It will therefore be necessary to take a chance in the hope that you have made the right choice. If the weather proves changeable, we will need to adapt as quickly and as effectively as possible to the rapid changes in grip..."
Although it promises to put nerves to the test, this enigmatic aspect of this year's RAC Rally is also extremely motivating for Guy Fréquelin and his troops. The problems posed by this new-look version of the event are countered by the fact that all the teams will be on an equal footing, and trying to outwit the opposition can be so stimulating...
Michelin, Magneti-Marelli, Kinetic, OZ, AIS and Citroën Financement are Team Citroën Total's partners in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Questions to Guy Fréquelin
The obvious question: what do you think of the switch of Wales Rally GB to September?
"If we are to find the same conditions that have marked the rally these past two years, the weather will have to be simply atrocious, and that's not really likely! If the weather proves dry, hot even, it will be a completely different event to the one we know. The stages will be very fast; as quick as, if not quicker than Rally Finland, although the Welsh forests can be rougher. The car will therefore need to be strong. However, given the region in which the rally is held, that is to say close to the sea, the weather could well prove highly changeable. If that is the case, it stands to be a very complicated weekend, similar to what we experienced in Germany..."
Could it be a lottery?
"I obviously hope not, but you can't rule it out. The variety of weather and stage conditions the event's date switch could bring means we will need a broad selection of tyre types. But the drivers will have to register their individual tyre choices even before they begin the recce. That decision will be based on weather forecasts which, however detailed they may be, are inevitably uncertain. There is therefore something of a clash; for while we work permanently on tracking down and eliminating as many imponderables as possible, the regulations introduce others..."
The event's previous date, which meant that the title chase was often decided in Great Britain, made it quite a stressful occasion. Will it be different this time round?
"Without a doubt, although there will still be the considerable nervous tension that goes hand in hand with all events. For both Citroën and the team's drivers, this rally marks an important step, although it probably won't be conclusive. We are in a positive spiral at the moment and that needs to result in us achieving our two objectives. It is therefore essential that we stick to that. I won't surprise anyone if I say that, as usual, we will start by gauging where we stand early on. If we sense that victory is possible, we will do all we can to win. Otherwise, we will try to come away with as many points as possible. Once again, we are not in a situation where we will have to take unnecessary risks..."
Questions to Sébastien Loeb
This will be your fifth visit to Wales. Is this an event you enjoy?
"Absolutely! There are three things I like about this rally: the scenery, which always had something magical about it in the winter sunshine. I hope it will be just as stunning in September. I also like the atmosphere. But above all, I like the Welsh stages and the driving style they call for. They're not too rough and they're fast, slippery and wide enough to enable you to slide, something which was previously indispensable given how little grip there was. I admit that I also like the stages because they suit the Xsara... Will that still be the case now the event has been brought forward two months? I hope so!"
Last year you were divided between the joy of clinching the Manufacturers' title for Citroën and the disappointment of only finishing runner-up in the Drivers' championship. Will you be out for revenge?
"No, you can't say that. Last year, after two stages, I was in the lead, which means the Xsara and I had the potential to win, although we will never know whether I would have succeeded or not. Later in the event, I tried to push hard but I didn't succeed in matching the times of Petter [Solberg]. Perhaps he had upped his game, while maybe I wasn't psychologically in the same frame of mind. On the Friday morning's opening stages, I had a bit of a 'moment' and I remember thinking: 'hey, you were quick there!'. Later in the event though, other 'moments' tended to prompt me to lift. I thought: 'careful, no mistakes!'. No, it wouldn't be right to talk in terms of a desire for revenge, but rather a desire to demonstrate that, like last year, I can be competitive on this type of terrain..."
So you will be out to win...?
"Like I am every time... Perhaps more so even... That's often how it is with rallies I enjoy. We will have to wait to see whether it is possible. Part of the rally will be played out on Monday, when we nominate our tyre choices. Following its date switch, this event is likely to be the most complicated gravel rally of the calendar on the tyre front. The conditions stand to vary from dry and hard to cold, damp, muddy or even pouring rain. To be sure of having the ideal tyre for each situation, we could nominate a bit of everything, from ultra-soft rubber to hard compounds. But in that case, we will only have a limited quantity of each and we will end up running short if the conditions are consistent. The alternative, riskier solution will be to go without certain products. In a word, what I don't like about this rally is that we could lose it on the Monday before the start..."
Questions to Carlos Sainz
This will be the fifteenth time you start Britain's round of the WRC, an event you knew when its stages were secret. What do you think about this year's date change? Do you fear that the 'RAC', which had a very strong image and reputation, could become just another a rally?
"It's true that I knew the RAC when it was secret. I liked that a lot. When the rally moved to the Cardiff region and we could recce the stages, it obviously became easier, especially given the proximity of the sea which meant there was no snow or ice as there used to be. Even so, the conditions were still treacherous, with fog, rain and mud. The date change means we may lose the delicate aspect of the event that the weather brought. It should be drier, although we don't know how much drier..."
As the final round of the season, there was usually a great deal of pressure during this rally and the title decision has frequently been played out here. What memories do you have of previous events?
"I have mixed memories of the RAC Rally. I have won it twice, but I have also suffered some bitter disappointments. Of course, everyone remembers what happened in 1998. People still bring it up all the time. The title narrowly escaped us so close to home! Except for an accident, a driver couldn't have a worse recollection. It certainly marked me, but in a way it also taught me a great deal. I also remember the last year the stages were secret. Our car broke down two stages from the end while we were leading. That too was very tough to accept..."
What strengths does a car need to have to be competitive in the Welsh forests?
"It's more a tyre rally than a rally for a specific type of car. If you get your choice right and the weather isn't too fickle, everything should go well. That's the most critical thing to get right. And in any case, the Xsara is now nicely balanced and quick everywhere..."
Given the current positions in the two championships, and especially yours in the Drivers' points table, what sort of result will you be looking for in Wales?
"The fact that Citroën leads the Manufacturers' standings and that I am 4th in the Drivers' classification hasn't changed my objective which, as usual, is to win! I will do all I can to succeed in that or else to finish on the podium once again!"