For its official come-back to world class rallying after a year’s absence, Citroën has entered two new C4 WRCs for Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Dani Sordo/Marc Martí on the 2007 World Championship’s curtain-raiser, the Monte Carlo Rally. The WRC’s longest-standing fixture has traditionally been successful hunting ground in recent years for both the French team and its three-time Drivers’ title-winning crew Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena. After dominating the 2002 event, the association went on to collect three consecutive victories (2003, 2004 and 2005) before a breathtaking fight-back by the crew bagged 2nd place in 2006 with the Kronos-run Xsara.
Kicking off the new season with a new car was always going to be a challenge. "Despite all the hard work we have accomplished with the C4 WRC and although it has proved more competitive than the Xsara, we still lack hindsight," comments Guy Fréquelin. Indeed, the new car is poised to make its debut on the new look Monte Carlo Rally, one of the toughest of the calendar’s sixteen rounds, and that only serves to make the challenge even more complex.
Everyone at Citroën Sport is acutely aware of the volume of the task that awaits them though, and all the work that has been done during the past year was planned to give the team the best chances of success.
In its bid to eliminate unwelcome surprises and to allow the C4 WRC to make its debut in the best conditions possible, the French squad has effectively put in a very special effort. In addition to Sébastien Loeb, Juuso Pykälisto, Philippe Bugalski, André Bourdon and Kris Meeke, all took turns at the wheel of the C4 in the course of its development programme in 2006. Seb himself, who has now recovered from his mountain bike fall, had a busy end to the year with a schedule of several test sessions aimed at covering as many of the different types of conditions that can be expected on the Monte Carlo Rally as possible. Dani Sordo has also made an active contribution, especially since the confirmation of his nomination as the team’s second driver for 2007.
As Citroën Sport’s Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon explains, this lengthy preparation period has been very fruitful, but that won’t stop the team lining up for the new car’s maiden outing with a certain reserve: "The test programme went well, but we are a little cautious going into the Monte because we don’t know how we compare with the opposition. We have no particular concerns regarding reliability, but here again caution prevails."
For 2007, the Monte Carlo Rally organisers have decided to return to the scene of some of the finest chapters of the event’s history by shifting its focus to the city of Valence which will host the event’s headquarters and principal service park. There is a good chance that this year’s visits to the Vercors (Thursday evening) and Ardèche regions will produce wintry conditions and, true to its legend, the rally could well prove more indecisive than ever. But many questions– like "Will the bitter wind that frequently blows over the plateau near Lachamp-Raphaël bring snow?" "Will the Saint Bonnet le Froid loop – the northernmost part of the route – be as icy as it used to be?" "What tyres will be the most suitable for the 46km run over three mountain passes from Saint Pierreville to Antraigues?" – will all have to wait until the day to be answered.
As if discovering a brand new car in anger for the first time on unfamiliar stages wasn’t a bug enough challenge, Sébastien and Dani are expecting some pretty tough calls on the tyre front too. To help them, however, they will be able to count on the combined experience of Citroën Sport and BFGoodrich’s technical staff, as well as in the competitiveness of the latter’s products.
The many unknowns that mark the build-up to the 2007 Monte mean that Guy Fréquelin, who is familiar with the potential pitfalls of the Ardèche region, is even more guarded than usual. "We face several unknown factors which are further complicated by the fact that the Monte Carlo Rally is such a specific event," he says. "That said, without wishing to sound too presumptuous, we will do our best to win."