Loeb and Elena four points from the world title... In keeping with a longstanding tradition that was briefly interrupted for two seasons, Great Britain's round of the World Rally Championship will bring the curtain down on the 2007 campaign. For...
Loeb and Elena four points from the world title...
In keeping with a longstanding tradition that was briefly interrupted for two seasons, Great Britain's round of the World Rally Championship will bring the curtain down on the 2007 campaign. For the sixteenth and final round of the season, Citroen Sport has entered two C4 WRCs, one for Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and the other for Dani Sordo/Marc Marti.
The format of the all-gravel fixture is very similar to that of last year's visit to South Wales. Indeed, the 17 stages (eight different tests contested twice each, plus a super- special) that make up the menu of the 2007 event are all old acquaintances. The first day takes crews to the Neath Valley and visits such well known venues as Resolfen and Rheola. The forests and military ranges near Llandovery provide the backdrop for the second leg, while Sunday's action will take crews into the daunting Brechfa Forest, a fitting location for the finale of this year's drama-filled championship.
This emblematic fixture, which was known for many years as the RAC Rally, has also tended to be one of the toughest events on the WRC calendar and has lost none of the ingredients that helped forge its legend. For rally fans, it still conjures up pictures of cars opposite locking through muddy stages as their lights struggle to pick out the road ahead in thick fog.
Its end-of-year slot also means it has often been decisive in the outcome of one or both world titles. The different cities that have hosted the event over the years have frequently been the scene of the sort of celebrations that Cardiff can expect again this time round, and Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena go to Wales with a real chance of securing a fourth consecutive crown.
To succeed, the Citroen duo knows what it has to do... on paper at least! Should Marcus Gronholm win in Wales, Seb and Daniel, who have a six-point advantage over their Finnish rival, will need to pick up at least four points if they are to join Tommi Makinen (champion in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999) in the record books as World Champions four times in a row. The talent of the Citroen-Total crew, the competitiveness of their C4 WRC and the high standard of the work of everyone at Citroen Sport should give them the means to succeed, but everybody is perfectly aware that things are rarely that straightforward...
"Since I became the director of Citroen Sport 19 years ago," says Guy Frequelin, "I have repeatedly said that rallying is the most unpredictable form of motor sport. I'm not going to change my tune just because this is my last rally as team boss, especially since the 2007 title will be decided on such a notorious event as Wales Rally GB! The usual imponderables relating to the cars' mechanicals and the possibility of a driver error are even more pronounced on this event. Its extreme conditions make it very complex. We have a real chance and we are all very motivated, but I am still very much on my guard..."
It turned out that you were right to believe that the Rally Ireland would be very difficult?
"Of the three events that were new to the calendar this year, the Rally Ireland was undoubtedly the toughest. The Irish stages were narrow, extremely fast and often very bumpy. They were like no asphalt roads we had ever come across before. Although we had been expecting it, the wet weather only served to make matters even more complicated. The combination of running water, puddles, mud dragged on to the stage and fog made life acutely difficult for the crews and produced a lot of driver errors. For all these reasons, finishing first and second was tremendously satisfying and a fitting reward for all the work put in by everyone at Citroen Sport, both upstream of the rally and during it."
The combination of your win in Ireland and Marcus Gronholm's retirement puts Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena in a good position in their bid to win the Drivers' title...
"Seb and Daniel went to Ireland with a deficit of four points and they now go into the final round of the year with a six-point lead. They are in a favourable position but the title is far from won. As we saw in Formula 1 this year, nothing is ever over until the finish line has been crossed. So much can happen in the Welsh forests. The conditions there in December promise to be very complex, with the prospect of mud, low grip, night-time stages and probably fog, while snow and ice can't be ruled out either."
The final round of 2007 is a special occasion for you. How do you think that will feel?
"It will effectively be my final event in charge of Citroen Sport, so it's bound to be something special! How do I think it will feel? I don't know yet. It will certainly be an emotional moment and I approach it with mixed feelings. That said, I will probably be too focused to think too much about it during the rally, so I suppose it will probably hit me afterwards. The position of Seb and Daniel does nothing to ease the pressure because they still need to go out there and score four points. We probably won't be challenging for victory but the result will still be important. Happily, I know I will be able to count on the motivation of our crews and everyone at Citroen Sport to rise to the challenge."
Did you ever imagine that the Rally Ireland would turn out to be so dramatic?
"Not at all! The early part of the event was simply crazy. Following our damper hose problem on the run-out to Friday's first stage, we didn't think we had much of a chance but we managed to limit the damage and it's Marcus Gronholm who made a mistake! That put a whole new slant on the rally. The conditions were particularly tricky, so it was important to find the best pace to stay concentrated and profit as much as we needed to from the potential of our C4 WRC. In the end, we picked up an important win which has enabled us to reverse the trend in the Drivers' championship and top the provisional standings going into the Wales Rally GB."
Once again, it will be a case of finding the ideal pace in Wales, no?
"It will. We lead by six points, so we won't need to win at all costs. Should Marcus win, we will have to finish in at least fifth place to make sure of the title. That would put us equal on points but we have more wins to our name. We will consequently need to find a pace that permits us to finish inside the top-five. I don't enjoy driving to finish but, given the importance of the stakes, it's only logical."
There is consequently a strong chance you won't win in Wales this year?
"Unless the event produces a big surprise, we probably won't be adding our names to the list of past winners of this event this time round. I don't mind, however, if that means securing a fourth world title! Along with winning Rally Finland, it will also give us something to aim for in years to come! The Wales Rally GB has never gone well for us in a WRC car. We didn't even start the 2006 event! However, the stages haven't changed much in recent years so I hope our absence last year won't be too much of a handicap. The way the Rally of New Zealand went suggests it shouldn't be."
What do you think you will most remember about this year's visit to Ireland?
"That it was an extremely complex rally! I have rarely contested such a delicate event on asphalt. It was unique and I realised as soon as recce began that our experience on the Cork Rally would come in useful. The stages weren't the same but we knew pretty much what to expect with regard to the profile of the roads and their constantly changing grip. The Cork Rally also gave me a chance to familiarise myself with the island's concealed corners, the high speeds and the lack of grip."
You have only contested Wales Rally GB once before. What is your opinion of it?
"I have only done it once before and that was last year with Marc Marti driving the Xsara WRC. Given that it was our first attempt, our times weren't too bad and I was pleased about that. I enjoyed the stages which I found to be rough and technical, with some very fast portions which put the accent on driving ability. I didn't like the fog, though. When you lack benchmarks on a terrain like that, it's difficult to be quick."
The Wales Rally GB is the last round of the year. What will your objective be?
"Above all, I will be looking to finish. It will be important for my experience to contest all the stages. We won't be under any particular pressure, so I will also try to enjoy myself with the C4 WRC and post some decent times compared with our rivals who have more experience of the event. I will also keep a close eye on how things are going for Sebastien and Daniel and lend a helping hand to the Citroen team effort if that proves necessary."
The 2007 Wales Rally GB in brief...
* Since 2003, the official name of the event has been Wales Rally GB, but many still refer to it as the RAC Rally. This will be the 75th edition of this event which has always counted towards the world rally calendar.
* The rally takes place in Wales and is based in its capital, Cardiff which hosts all the event's facilities, including the Media Room, Rally HQ and the super-special. The single service park in Swansea is 65km from Cardiff.
* The time difference between Wales and CET is one hour. When it is 8pm in Paris, it is 7pm in Cardiff. The local currency is the Pound. Distances are given in miles (1 mile 1.6km).
* The total length of the 2007 event is 1,271.94km, including 359.54km divided into 17 stages (9 different).
* In accordance with the regulations, the C4 WRC of Seb and Daniel will have a new engine following their retirement in Japan. The engine in the car of Dani and Marc has already contested the New Zealand and Japan Rallies. The chassis of the two cars are not linked with any other events, nor are the subframes or steering racks: four of each (one per car, plus two spares) are authorised. They can be used freely on either C4 WRC.
* Tyres the quota per driver is 60 tyres, of which 38 may be used (event + shakedown). Barcode lists and pattern choices had to be nominated by Friday November 23.