Emerald-studded success for Citroen? After its long and triumphant trip to Argentina, Citroen Sport returns to Europe and the island of Sardinia for Round 7 of the 2007 WRC calendar. Two C4 WRCs have been entered for the Rally d'Italia-Sardegna...
Emerald-studded success for Citroen?
After its long and triumphant trip to Argentina, Citroen Sport returns to Europe and the island of Sardinia for Round 7 of the 2007 WRC calendar. Two C4 WRCs have been entered for the Rally d'Italia-Sardegna for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/ Marc Marti. For many years, Italy was represented in the sport's premier series by the Sanremo Rally but four years ago switched to the north-east corner of Sardinia, a region famously known as the 'Costa Smeralda', the Emerald Coast. But while this luring appellation is ideally suited to the clear green waters and magnificent creeks north of Porto Cervo, the island offers a contrasting interior in the provinces where the rally action takes place, namely Nuora to the south (Friday), Gallura (Saturday) and Olbia-Tempio to the north (Sunday).
Over the years, the organisers have sought to fine-tune the format of their event to make it more appealing, progressively dropping the blander portions to move increasingly towards the character that forged the reputation of the former European Championship classic, the Costa Smeralda Rally. Another factor that has helped the teams, including Citroen Sport, to get a better understanding of the event's special challenges is the fact that gravel test sessions are frequently organised in Sardinia.
It has to be said that the island's sometimes spaghetti western backdrop serves as the perfect setting for the ongoing stand-off that has opposed Sebastien Loeb and Marcus Gronholm since the start of the season. And this weekend again they are preparing to act out another scene from "The top of this podium isn't big enough for both of us". As winner of the last three rallies contested this year, Seb will be looking to make it four-in-a-row in Olbia in his bid to pull a little further clear at the top of the Drivers' points table.
"Sebastien and Marcus are clearly the dominant forces on gravel in the WRC at the moment," says Guy Frequelin. "When they're scrapping to the closest tenth of a second, there aren't many who can match them. Sardinia is not a straightforward event and, once again, it will be essential to finish in order to keep up our challenge in both championships. Dani Sordo returns to an event that has already seen him put in some strong performances and I am expecting him to confirm the progress he showed on dirt in Argentina. Last but not least, the C4 will once again be competing in anger over a type of terrain that is new to it. The Italian round promises to be both busy and stimulating for everyone at Citroen Sport."
"This is an event that has tended to go well for me so far," observes Dani. "Last year, I felt very comfortable with the Xsara in Sardinia, and my feeling with the Citroen C4 WRC is improving all the time. I believe I have progressed in all the conditions that have given me trouble until now and I hope I can succeed in profiting from the car's potential to score as many points as possible for Citroen."
The three Rally d'Italia-Sardegnas organised to date have been highly successful for Citroen's Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena. They finished 2nd at first attempt in 2004 and have since won twice, in 2005 and 2006. "It's a superb island and the stages are getting better all the time. I hope that will again be the case this year. As ever, my approach will be simple: on the first day I will push hard to try and minimise the handicap of running first on the road and then see where we stand. I want to win and enable Citroen to continue its winning runs both on this event and in 2007, but I haven't forgotten our misadventure in Norway and all the points we lost there. If the situation dictates, I will place the accent on consistency."
Questions to Guy Frequelin:
What is your analysis of the recent Rally Argentina?
"It was a very intense week! The logistical problems encountered by the organisers during the first leg essentially reduced the event to just two days of competition and only served to make it more stressful. Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena put in a perfect run. They took the lead after the first real stage and then completely annihilated the opposition with a score of ten fastest stage times. It was more complex for Dani Sordo and Marc Marti who notably lost ground because of a hydraulic problem. Even so, they were in fighting form on the Sunday and succeeded in climbing back two places. It seems to me that Dani reached a new level in Argentina where the Citroen C4 WRC once again showed remarkable potential."
As in Argentina, Citroen has a successful recent record to defend in Sardinia. Can the current competitiveness of the C4 WRC enable you to extend your current winning runs?
"It is true that Citroen and Seb have won the last two times out in Sardinia and we are also on a streak of three wins in a row this season. It would be nice to add another win to both these runs but we still have to be cautious because the specific conditions of Sardinia are once again new terrain for the car, but I hope we are able to challenge for victory. We have worked hard and prepared thoroughly for that."
What exactly are the Rally d'Italia-Sardegna's specific features?
"The stages have evolved, but they tend to be very narrow with lots of blind crests and corners. You can't afford to stray off the ideal line because the sides of the roads are very rocky and putting a wheel on the verge can eliminate you. The surface itself is very sandy and, if it doesn't rain, running first on the road is a big handicap."
Questions to Sebastien Loeb:
Although Rally Argentina was essentially reduced to just two days of competition, you still had enough time to win?
"Winning in Argentina was more difficult than it may have appeared and the rain, mud and fog didn't make it any easier for us. The stages themselves are also very varied and you need to stay one hundred per cent focused from start to finish. On top of that, we didn't have any split times to guide us which meant we had to keep up a fast pace. At the end of the day, the fact that there were just two legs may have been a blessing for us!" Your 32nd world class win allowed you to pull two further points clear of Marcus... "Our lead is now three points which is a small margin after all the effort we have put in and all the risks we have taken. But that's the way the scoring system works and you have to live with it; it's played in our favour in the past. You just have to take it into account and approach the events accordingly. If you can't win in a straight fight, the least bad alternative is to aim for 2nd place."
Are you planning to settle for 2nd place in Sardinia?
"Of course not! Seriously, though, the stages of the first loop are covered with a thick top coating of loose gravel and there will be a lot of 'sweeping' to do, so I can't forecast how Day 1 will go. I will try to win but my tactics will depend on the way things unfold."
Questions to Dani Sordo:
You had a very good last day run in Argentina.
"Even though the organisers added another stage, the final leg was still short with very little stage mileage, but we did what we could to move back up the leaderboard. My feeling with the Citroen C4 on the fairly slow and rough stages was excellent. We managed to move up from 8 to 6th place and I think we could have improved our position further still. Unfortunately, a minor engine misfire and an error by me on the super-special forced us to settle for 6th."
Sardinia tends to be happy hunting ground for you.
"It's true that I won the Junior Super 1600 category in Sardinia with the Citroen C2 in 2005 and then finished my third rally on the loose with the Xsara WRC last year on the podium. That said, it isn't an easy rally. The stages are very narrow and the slightest mistake can be very costly, while the deep, sandy top surface means there isn't much grip."
What will your objective be this time round?
"It's a rally where patience can pay because there are invariably incidents. I think it would be illusory to hope for better than last year. I would love to finish in the top- three again but I'm aware that it's doubtlessly a little too soon for me to achieve that. I will try to find the consistency I still lack and I also hope that the ill-luck that has plagued me in recent events will give us a bit of a break."