Victory at last for Citroen? Wales Rally GB not only marks the return of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship to gravel but it also stands out as the last round before the current series enters its fourth and final quarter. The ...
Victory at last for Citroen?
Wales Rally GB not only marks the return of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship to gravel but it also stands out as the last round before the current series enters its fourth and final quarter. The Manufacturers' championship leaders Citroen have entered two Xsara WRCs for the British classic, for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Francois Duval/Sven Smeets who together claimed an emphatic one-two result on the recent asphalt interlude in Germany...
The French carmaker has twice finished Rally GB in 2nd spot: in 2003, when its efforts where essentially focused on (successfully) securing the Manufacturers title, and again in 2004 after leading until 10km from the chequered flag. This time round, the Versailles-Satory squad has prepared particularly carefully for the visit to Cardiff and will be out to finish one place higher, which would be its first success in the British event...
Last year saw Britain's round switch from the traditional November date it had held since 1959 to a new mid-September slot. In the Brecon Beacons National Park, which stretches north of the imaginary line between Cardiff and Swansea, this is often a transitional moment of the year in weather terms. It's not yet winter and, in any case, the proximity of the sea all but eliminates the likelihood of snow and ice which used to be a hallmark of RAC Rallies of yesteryear. However, the region could either still be enjoying summer sunshine, or it could equally turn out to be autumn already, with weather changes possible during the weekend, or even during the same day!
The stages themselves are practically identical to those employed twelve months ago and use the country's celebrated wide and generally well-maintained forest tracks. "The stages are fast," says Citroen Sport's Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. "They are a bit like Finland, but without the jumps and with the odd rougher portion. In dry weather, the stony surface is very abrasive but if it rains it becomes covered in a top-coating of extraordinarily slippery mud. Temperatures can vary considerably too. The best tyre -- that is to say the most competitive tyre -- can extend from the softest available in the range to the hardest..."
To cope with the different possible scenarios, one tactic is to select a broad spectrum of tyre types when nominating the drivers' individual quotas. The number of covers that can be registered is restricted to 70 however. Which means that if the drivers do make a wide choice, they will only have limited quantities of each type. On the other hand, if the conditions prove consistent, the ideal tyre will be the same from start to finish and the driver could well find himself short. Drivers faced exactly this sort of situation last year when omnipresent mud and low temperatures meant that the soft compound was the most competitive option over the three days...
Another approach consists in having total confidence in the forecasters' predictions and selecting a large quantity of the tyre type suited to the anticipated conditions. With the weather being so unpredictable and changeable, this sort of gamble could well lead to the driver hitting the jackpot... or it could end in disaster. Such, in any case, is the conundrum faced by the teams right up to the tyre nomination 'deadline' on the afternoon of Monday September 12th.
Questions to Guy Frequelin...
With two asphalt rounds still to come, what is your analysis of Citroen's
one-two result in Germany?
"The faultless runs of both our drivers enabled us to pull quickly clear of the pack and push home our advantage to ultimately regain the lead in the Manufacturers' championship. The combination of the Xsara, our crews and our Michelin tyres showed our potential on asphalt and that's clearly a good pointer for the two asphalt rounds to come. That said, you can't automatically carry over the superb scenario we enjoyed in the Deutschland Rally to Corsica and Catalonia. The stages of the latter two events are different to those found in Germany and indeed differ between themselves. The weather may not prove as mild as it was in Germany either. Also, I wouldn't want to underestimate our rival's capacity to react. So, as usual, I would say I'm confident, but cautious!"
Francois Duval was back to his true potential in Germany. Tactically that's
"I am really pleased for Francois. He feels comfortable on the German stages and he proved a match for Seb whose speed is no secret. That's very, very positive! Another positive point was the fact that Francois fully accepted to fall in line with team discipline even though he was doubtlessly keen to take his first world class win. We are also very appreciative of his efforts to communicate and integrate himself in the team. He is motivated and hungrier for information; in a word he is more professional. I am looking forward to seeing how well he performs over the opening stages in Wales. He will be on difficult terrain and I don't want him to take too many risks, but I hope he is able to give us good support."
Each of the last two Wales Rally GBs has had a special flavour for Citroen.
How do you see this year's event going for you?
"In 2003, we were focused on securing the Manufacturers' title, while Seb was pipped at the post in 2004. After coming 2nd twice in a row, all we can wish for is that we are able to succeed at last in adding this event to the team's record. So, yes, we really want to win Wales Rally GB. Given how the car has progressed on the loose and given the strength of Michelin's tyres, we believe we have the potential to fight at the sharp end and challenge for victory again. At the same time, we also know that the way the event unfolds could depend in part on the suitability of our drivers' individual tyre quotas for the weather conditions which can be very unsettled in Wales at this time of year. Finally, we don't intend to lose sight of the fact either that our priority is to score as many points as possible..."
...to Sebastien Loeb...
In the end, you really wanted to win your 'home' event -- the Deutschland
Rally -- for the fourth time... More than you let on before the start...
"The will to win is sufficient motivation whatever the rally. As I indicated, I started at a strong pace but at a pace at which I felt comfortable and which, given my knowledge of the Xsara, meant I could drive at the limit without overstepping it. The fact that Francois was so close didn't come as a surprise and we finished some long stages on the same second. His performance in Germany last year and his times during shakedown spoke for themselves. What I didn't know was where he stood in terms of his morale and he has reassured everyone on that front. It was a great pleasure to win this rally. As on the Monte Carlo and in Argentina, you feel the spectators urging you on. The ovation we were given by our fans at service was fantastic! Pleasing them only adds to our own pleasure. I am also delighted for the team that we succeeded in finishing first and second; it was a reward that their outstanding work deserves..."
After last year's switch to a September date, are you still as big a fan of
Wales Rally GB?
"Last year, you could hardly tell the event had moved to September! OK, it wasn't so cold but the stages were as slippery as ever. Indeed, the pleasure of competing here comes from the fast, wide stages that allow you to use all the road, with no ruts that force everyone to follow the same line. The fact that there is such little grip also forces you to drive with a great deal of finesse. With a nicely balanced car like the Xsara, the stages are really fun. It's not easy to find the ideal speed, but they're such a pleasure. For me, the rally's only down side -- and I said this already last year -- is that you can lose it on the Monday before the start -- before you even set foot in a stage -- if you get your tyre quota wrong."
Finishing 2nd again in 2004 was frustrating. Will you be out for revenge
this year, and what sort of weather would you prefer?
"Will I be out for revenge? Yes and no! It's true that victory has slipped through my fingers twice now, but both times the end result was positive for Citroen. But this time I do really want to win. As far as the weather goes, as I have already said, I enjoy it when the conditions are slippery. That's great fun. But previous rallies have shown that our Michelin tyres make an even bigger difference when the going is hot and when the stages become more abrasive second time through. So I would like the weather to be dry... with my tyre quota just right!"
...and to Francois Duval.
Let's look back briefly at the Deutschland Rally...
"Things generally go well for me on asphalt. I knew I could fulfil my mission which was to drive quickly, figure up with the front-runners and show I was a force to be reckoned with. It's been a while since I last enjoyed myself so much on an event and I drove at a quick pace from the start. It was a superb rally and Seb and I had a great fight until the moment we logically decided to focus on ensuring the excellent result we finally achieved. It was easier from that point on..."
This will be your fifth Rally GB start. What do you think of this event?
"You could be forgiven for thinking it was an easy rally but it is in fact very difficult. When it rains, as it often does, the stages are very slippery. Finding the ideal braking point can be delicate, and it only gets worse after the first cars have been through. If the going is dry, the stages are more abrasive. The weather can change quite quickly and calling the tyres right each time isn't easy..."
How did testing go? What sort of result do you think you can achieve?
"I spent a day testing in dry conditions. Everything went OK and I am happy with the set-up we found. I feel comfortable with the car, while Sven and I are now also totally in phase. I hope I will be able to push harder than in recent gravel events, for my own good and for the good of the team. I will be pleased if I can finish inside the top-five and I will base my pace on that of Markko [Martin]. He generally goes well on this type of event, so I mustn't make any mistakes..."