Three match points... Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti and their Xsara WRCs turn their attention to the Mediterranean island of Corsica where they hope to make the most of their chance to meet CitroÃ«n's target for 2004 by ...
Three match points...
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti and their Xsara WRCs turn their attention to the Mediterranean island of Corsica where they hope to make the most of their chance to meet Citroën's target for 2004 by sewing up both the Manufacturers' and Drivers' titles.
Thanks to its performances since the start of the year, as well as to the Xsara's reliability and the talent of its crews, the French squad is effectively very close today to pulling off a sensational championship double. Sebastien Loeb is only five points from his goal, while Citroën needs just seven points to put itself definitively out of reach of its rivals in the Manufacturers' standings... with three rounds to come. Put in tennis terms, the Versailles-Satory-based team has three match points in hand.
The fact that the first of these will be played out on the asphalt of Corsica is not, in theory, unfavourable. The result of August's Deutschland Rally confirmed how awesomely competitive the Xsara WRC continues to be on asphalt, while Sebastien Loeb has won both the asphalt rounds organised so far this year and Carlos Sainz finished on the podium in Germany. The team itself has twice finished on top in Ajaccio with the Xsara - initially in Kit Car form, then with the WRC version - and accordingly benefits from a comprehensive technical database for the car over the island's twisty roads...
This information was put to maximum effect during the build up to the event which included a pre-Corsica/Catalonia test near Vic in the north of Spain. This session gave the drivers and the Xsara a chance to get back into asphalt mode and also to evaluate the latest rubber proposed by Michelin. Both Seb and Carlos were very pleased with the work accomplished and everything is looking very positive for the 'Reds'. However, that's exactly the sort of situation that tends to make the experienced Guy Frequelin very wary...
Indeed, the Tour of Corsica is a never simple event and, as we saw in 2003, it can be particularly complex when organised in October. Uncertain weather - which entails shifting showers, different rates of drying from one mountain slope to another - is always a headache for team tacticians, especially since tyre choices frequently have to be made well in advance of the stage start itself!
This year, in addition to the technical challenge, there is also the psychological factor. When a tennis player is about to serve for a match, he has to convince himself that it's just another service. Similarly, Seb, Carlos and Citroën will need to put the fact that the final goal is so close at hand to the back of their mind and approach the Tour of Corsica with their customary lucidity and concentration.
But when a tennis player has three match points in hand, he occasionally risks attempting an ace with his first service, and playing to win is effectively one of Sebastien's options in Corsica...
Questions to Guy Frequelin
You have succeeded in getting at least one Xsara onto the podium in twelve of the thirteen rounds organised this year prior to Corsica. What is your recipe for this level of reliability?
"To a great extent, we owe the fact that we are so often at the sharp end to our crews. We are fortunate to have intelligent, safe drivers. As far as reliability itself is concerned, it's a state of mind at Citroën, an obsession almost. We think actively about 'reliability' at every phase of the car's life, from design to production, validation, assembly and on events. Whenever we have a problem, we do everything to ensure it never happens again. And when one of our rivals hits trouble, I immediately ask whether we have done everything necessary for the same thing not to happen to us. Despite all these precautions, I know, indeed we all know that nobody in motor sport can consider themselves immune from problems. That's something we experienced at first hand in Turkey. It makes me shudder when I think of the thousands of things that can cause a car to stop! I could lose sleep over it!"
You are in a very favourable position in the two championships and you could effectively sew up both titles in Corsica. Does that put the team under any particular pressure?
"Sincerely, I don't think so! Our current lead, plus the fact that we will be on known ground in Corsica - even if conditions can be changeable - and the confidence the team has acquired during this our second full WRC campaign are all positive factors and should enable us to manage this event well. My priority will be more to help Sebastien not put himself under too much pressure..."
Indeed, what is your advice to him?
"I will tell him that it's not the moment to be playing at samurais. He could end up committing hara-kiri. The lead we have pulled out is too valuable to be thrown away. I have personally been in a position where I have had to play for the title with my back to the wall after the preceding rallies went badly. I lost. Carlos has also been through the same thing. To avoid putting himself in a difficult situation, Seb will have to be very cautious in Corsica and stay on the road at all cost. Five points, that's all he needs. I won't relax until the finish. If he succeeds in securing the title in Corsica, and if the score of our two drivers allows us to sew up the Manufacturers' championship there, they will be given a free rein to drive as they wish in Catalonia and Australia!"
Questions to Sebastien Loeb
Do you see it as a good thing that the championship returns to asphalt for what could be a decisive round?
"We have absolutely no reason to be ashamed of what we have achieved on the loose. In each of the past three rallies, we have taken the fight to Marcus Gronholm and Markko Martin, and we were even looking good for victory in Wales... until the last twelve kilometres! That said, I started off on asphalt and the Xsara began its career by being successful on this type of surface. Together, we form what has proved a competitive duo on sealed roads. Our record this year on asphalt, which is essentially the Deutschland Rally, gives us a slight edge. So, to have a chance of clinching both titles, returning to this type of surface is effectively a good thing!"
You give the impression you would like to win in Corsica...
"If I said I didn't want to win, who would believe me? Last year, I was leading until the eighth stage when I made a mistake that could easily have gone unpunished but which ended up costing me ten minutes. I love Corsica. I love the rally; it's the Rally of France. I believe we pleased our many fans on the Monte Carlo and in Germany and I would like to think we could do the same in Corsica. I also believe that winning would be an elegant way to clinch the championship..."
Does that mean we can expect a performance with panache from you, as in Wales?
"I have noted that in closely fought rallies - such as Australia in 2003, or Wales last month - I don't take any more or less risks when I push hard than when I drive to finish. If I feel comfortable with the Xsara and if I'm in good form, then the Corsican stages, which are no more demanding than those of the Monte Carlo or Germany, should enable me to battle for victory without taking any unconsidered risks. That's what I hope, in any case. However, should the speed of another driver force me to drive beyond what I consider to be a reasonable limit, or should I be forced out of contention for victory by an incident - by a sudden change in the weather, for example - then I will immediately re-focus on the championship and on securing the five points I need to clinch the title. Carlos has told me, and he is right, that the championship is more important than winning in Corsica!"
Questions to Carlos Sainz
What do you think of the format of this year's Tour of Corsica, with just two stages each day run twice?
"I said at the beginning of the season, at the time of the Monte Carlo Rally, that I didn't find the format of a small number of stages run twice particularly enthralling for the drivers. Perhaps I'm just more sensitive to this sort of thing because of my past experience. For sure, times have changed. Even so, I would still prefer more stages while at the same time keeping to the maximum total competitive distance, not only for the sport but also, and above all, for the pleasure! That said, the fact that there aren't many different stages won't stop this being a great Tour of Corsica..."
How would you tackle this event if you were in Sebastien's shoes?
"Sebastien needs to stay calm. Given how he went last year, he is the favourite and he will obviously want to win. But he mustn't take any risks. He needs to adjust his pace as a function of how the other drivers go, not make any mistakes and force himself, at least initially, to forget about the championship stakes. If he has to choose between taking risks to win or making sure of the championship, my recommendation is that the title is more important than victory in Corsica..."
In eighteen seasons of world class rallying, you have finished in the top-three of the championship eleven times. You are again on the provisional podium this year. Is that an added source of motivation for you?
"My motivation for this sport is incommensurable. I have been fortunate enough to be able make a living out of my passion and to spend practically all these years at the highest level. There's not a day goes by that I don't appreciate what I do and, whatever the result, I always give 100%..."
Where do you stand concerning your thoughts about 2005? Could finishing in the top-three of the 2004 Drivers' championship influence your decision?
"The sporting side and my position in the championship will not influence my decision. What does weigh in the balance is the championship itself. A calendar of sixteen rounds is forcibly more demanding. If there were fewer events, I would be asking myself fewer questions. I would like to take part in a competition where the number of events leaves you time to do other things... What with testing and the events themselves, that's no longer the case today..."