Dani Sordo’s victory at Rally Sardinia was just his second WRC success, coming after an incredible 24 second places in a stellar career.
It seems an ideal time to look back on Sordo’s career, and to republish this Martin Holmes interview from 2009.
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"I guess that I have been involved in rallies for about the last 15 years. My family went to all the rallies in the Cantabria region of Spain (which is in the north of Spain around Santander) to follow my father when he was taking part.
“I became involved in active motorsport through karting, where you could compete when you were younger, then into hillclimbs and eventually into rallies. I liked the idea of rallying more than racing."
Dani Sordo’s first rally was at the wheel of a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer, and with that car he won the Cantabrian championship.
"I had two heroes, obviously Carlos Sainz, and also Jesus Puras, who was many times Spanish champion, with Citroen. I remember the first time I saw Carlos in action was in Catalunya Rally with the Subaru Group A.
“In those days Carlos competed with Luis Moya, before he later moved on to Marc Marti. I never realised that one day I would be competing on world championship rallies with Marc."
At that time Marc was co-driving for Oriol Gomez, but knows all about Dani in his younger days.
"I have a picture of myself with Oriol and a publicity girl, and a young school boy who edged into the shot – it was Dani!" Marti remembers.
Dani's first rallying adventure outside Spain was when he went to watch the Monte Carlo Rally.
"It was the year before they started the Junior Championship series. I was astonished at how fast everyone was driving and especially Carlos!” he recalls. “Another driver who for me was astonishing was Gigi Galli in the snow."
Dani Sordo, Citroen C2 Super 1600, Rally of Italy 2005. Photo: Maurice Selden
His thoughts about trying to be a professional rally driver came in 2005, the amazing year when he won not only the Spanish rally championship, but also the FIA Junior World Rally Championship title, at the age of 22, and both with Marc in a Citroen C2.
"That was when I realised I might have a good possibility to be a professional driver in the world championship. The opportunity to compete in world championship rallies came through the help of RACC, and there was a concerted effort between my father and Citroen Spain and Carlos Sainz to find financial support. I did not have any manager but, my father did a lot of this work."
The Junior championship title meant that Dani became the world’s youngest ever rally world champion!
Like the reigning world champion Sebastien Loeb, Dani came to international prominence through the Super 1600 rallying in the world championship events.
"I think this is a very good schooling for a young driver, better than Group N. I have experience of both. In many ways a Group N car is still very much like a production car, but a Super 1600 is an out and out competition car.
“The engine, the brakes, the way the engine revs, the sequential gearbox, the way you use left foot braking, everything about a Super 1600 car is better experience. You learn much more about rally driving than in a Group N car.”
Rules say that once you win the Junior championship you cannot win it again, so his backers knew that this was the time when he had to make an upward step, but it all depended on available money. This became available, but the sponsors made some very strict house rules.
It was made very clear that if there was a crashed World Rally Car, there would not be another, and he could not look to them for extra funds.
"I finished the first eight events in a World Rally Car, gaining four podium results including the first two of my famous second places, and my backers were told I was officially part of the team and that I could try to go faster. I failed to finish the next two events, including two crashes."
The second of these crashes was an extraordinary and very traumatic affair, it was when he smashed his Xsara into a roundabout in an asphalt downtown super special in Limassol in Cyprus.
"It was an untimed section, all I had to do was drive through the route for the stage and drive to the finish. I was absolutely distraught for two days afterwards, physically shattered by the experience.
“When Jari Matti did the same sort of thing this year in Poland, I think I was about the only person who could really understand what it personally could mean."
Dani's first opportunity to drive a World Rally Car was before the 2006 Monte Carlo when the team brought a Xsara to a sponsorship promotion in Cantabria.
"My first real drive was a one day test we then had in France, but that was short and it didn’t tell me much. The morning was wet and then it started to snow!"
What was the emotion?
"The speed was incredible. There was an even greater sensation of speed than with a Super 1600, especially the noise inside the car!
“The sound was something quite different. You did not drive the car by listening to the exhaust, like in a Super 1600 car. The turbocharger meant that you had to change your driving style completely, but it is amazing how you get all the power you needed right through the rev range.
“You do not know where is the limit in a World Rally Car. The speed is much higher, but you learn how powerful the brakes can be, therefore where your braking points should be. You approach the corners much faster.
“When I first drove the Xsara WRC, I kept feeling that I could have gone faster through the corners, but I could not tell how much faster...
“It was incredible for me to see how fast drivers like Loeb, Gronholm and (Petter) Solberg could make their World Rally Cars go!”
Dani in fact found the Xsara WRC surprisingly straightforward to drive on asphalt roads, but on gravel, a surface which for him traditionally was a foreign condition, things were different, really new.
Moving into WRC competition was not a smooth transition.
"Just before I was due to test the S1600 before we went to Monte Carlo for my first rally with the C2, my previous co-driver, Carlos del Barrio, announced he was not going to work with me. I couldn’t believe it, he couldn’t just walk out on me like that!"
The surprise was one thing, finding another co-driver was an even more pressing thought. It was Carlos Sainz who suggested that maybe Marc Marti could help.
"This was worrying for me, Marc had been rallying with Carlos for the past three years and I am sure he sensed very clearly that rallying with me meant competing at a different sort of level altogether.
“I do not know what he felt at the time, but I can say that our relationship has got better as time moved on. We are now in our fifth season together, and each year we seem to be getting better. From the Junior title we finished 5th, 4th and then 3rd in the world championship.”
The World Rally Car which Sordo drove in 2006 was the 2005 model Xsara with all active transmissions, whereas the cars of regular team drivers Sebastien Loeb and Xavier Pons had passive front and rear differentials.
"I do not think overall there was a big difference between the 2005 and the 2006 Citroens. I had used an identical car as used by Loeb and Pons during tests. Remember that a lot of the things used in earlier Citroens (like hydraulic anti rollbars) were no longer allowed in 2006 and in turn we could not use the latest specifications on the engines. One thing is balanced by the others.
“There is really no difference between the cars on the stopwatch. Just sometimes on very loose surfaces maybe our active transmission car was better, but really, not by very much.”
Active transmissions had meant the teams had stopped realising how much straightforward differential designs had improved.
"Looking back to the Xsara WRC it was really a fantastic car."
These thoughts came to him when he first drove a C4 WRC, preparing for the 2007 season.
"My first impression of the C4 was that this was a much bigger and heavier car than the Xsara. It felt a lot bigger, though gradually this impression disappeared."
Things did not go smoothly in his first season with the C4, because Citroen Sport suffered a strange problem with their engines, and twice he retired from rallies because of a fault in the engine’s cylinder block. It was a problem with a batch of engines, but happily for Citroen, Loeb did not suffer.
"This was the first major time in my career when I had to retire from rallies for problems which were not of my own making, and it was an emotional test. In fact, I found I could accept the problems because of the fact it hadn’t been my fault."
Dani Sordo found out he'd won Rally Sardinia at the stop point of the final control.
The early lessons of taking care and avoiding troubles were standing Dani in good stead. He was delivering a most enviable record of reliability in the championship rallies.
Memories are already running through Dani’s mind.
"I still think the result which gave me the most satisfaction was coming second on my home event, the Catalunya, in 2006, on only the fourth time I had rallied a World Rally Car. To my surprise, I found I was also starting to get good results on gravel as well as asphalt rallies.
“I came fourth in Mexico and then later in the year came sixth in the Acropolis, which was very satisfying."
When Dani came to Australia this year (2009) he had a string of no fewer than 13 second places on world championship rallies behind him. He did not know how many it was, surprised it was so many and had to check with a friend because he accepted it was true!
"To begin with I was quite happy with the situation, I was happy simply to be involved at the top level of the sport. But then I began to wonder, and so did everyone I know who follows the sport, why was it?
“But it wasn’t so much frustration, it was more bewilderment. How can it be, what stops me, maybe just once, from winning a world championship rally? I really want to win a rally, and sooner rather than later."
Experience is building up, and many drivers have scored their first world championship victory much earlier in their careers. Rally Australia was his 69th world rally start.
Learning to accept life as a number two driver in a team is one basic reason why sometimes it is important to be happy with finishing second, especially when the number one driver is Sebastien Loeb. Getting into a team position was no gift, it was the work of people who supported you.
"One of those was Carlos Sainz himself. We were never close friends, but I know that he suggested to the old boss of Citroen Sport (Guy Frequelin) that he should think about my driving for the team. That didn’t give me the drive, there was still the matter of finding the budgets, but it helped and eventually it all came good."
After Carlos Sainz left the team, Sebastien Loeb became their number one driver, and it is under the shadow of Sebastien that Dani has been driving his World Rally Cars.
"When I was younger I always wondered what the life of a professional driver would really be like. We have already seen that it is a hard job, always travelling, but I like it. But for now I know the most important thing is to take one step at a time.
“Being in the same team as the world champion Sebastien Loeb is a great opportunity. He is immediately happy to answer my questions, he tells me where I can go fast, where I must be careful. He has been very good with me, he is very approachable. We work very well together."
This closeness of relationship between the drivers contributes a lot towards the success of what is now called Citroen Racing.
"It is the same at Ford with Mikko Hirvonen and Jari Matti Latvala and it was the same when Marcus Gronholm was still there. It is interesting that both teams work together in the same spirit."
As Dani Sordo steadily solidifies his position within the sport he has developed respect and opinions about his fellow drivers. What makes Loeb so good?
"I really do not know. On a driving technique level, I know that he is superb. The way he gets the best out of his brakes. I notice that he is at his best when conditions are twisty and of course he is as good as anyone on faster roads.”
Regarding Mikko Hirvonen: "For a long while Sebastien was easily the better driver, but I am not so sure about that nowadays. Mikko is amazing. He continues to get better and better all the time, and of course he never seems to make mistakes!"
And about Mikko’s opposite number at Ford, Jari Matti Latvala. "I believe he really is the fastest driver in the championship. The only problem now is that he makes a lot of driving mistakes!"
Plans for the future? "Obviously I want to end up as World Rally Champion, but everything in my career must come step by step.”
Footnote: It was 11 years (2005-2016) before Sordo was eventually usurped as he sport's youngest world champion. Simone Tempestini then won JWRC in 2016, also 22 years of age. In the interim, Stephane Lefebvre won the JWRC in 2014, like the others also aged 22, but had been born earlier in the year.WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT SORDO …Marc Marti:
“Starting rallying with Dani was a new challenge. I had finished rallying with Carlos Sainz and reckoned my future life would be based at home with my family, but Carlos actually persuaded me to give the idea of helping Dani a try. This was a big new chance.
“At the beginning I was not sure if it was all a good idea. Dani was very young, 22 years old, and of course there was a generation gap involved! I was getting close to 40. But maybe the bigger query was the thought of going rallying again with a small two-wheel drive, normally-aspirated S1600 car.
“It was a different decision. There was no obvious motivation going to rally with a small car. And beyond that it was a daunting thought to be back teaching rally things to a young driver, to learn how to prepare himself, to be patient. It was not just a co-driving job, it was almost like being a father figure!
“In the end it was the right decision. The beginning was not so good, but we are really enjoying things together now. Dani is a nice guy, kind to his car and the relationship is more than just a rally one.
“You spend such a lot of time cooped up with a person inside a car that you need to think about things more than just the next rally. Dani and I have become friends and we are at each others’ family homes, but of course we also need our own space.
“There have been so many memories in the three seasons I have been working with Dani. I remember the first time we competed in the C2 on gravel, and on the very first stage we had a puncture. He was very fast the first time he drove on gravel, and having a puncture was a big frustration for him.
“Dani got the feeling he had just lost the rally. Then we continued and were still going fast, and of course he noticed that the other drivers were also having punctures, and we won the S1600 category. That was a very nice memory.
“With Dani, still young you realise, he is noticing things you are taking for granted, and he has a strange habit. He is always eating! Young people need to keep eating, all the time, they need to do it! I guess that after every hour or so, he wants to have a sandwich. How on earth is it possible to eat so many sandwiches?
“And, of course, there was the funny story of the rock in Finland. This was a dramatic moment in the busy learning time for Dani. We went to make a small rally in Finland and of course Dani was very confident in what he was doing. Going off the road was never something he ever thought would happen, well it did.
“Certainly Dani usually never makes a mistake, and when we went off the road it came as a huge surprise as much to him as to me. That experience taught him a lot about driving.
“We went off the road and the front of our car was impaled in this big rock. When he opened his eyes and the dust settled he could see that someone had already painted on the stone the name Gardemeister! Dani wasn’t the first driver to crash into that rock.
“We gather the rock now has two names painted on it. But this was nothing compared with the shock of Cyprus in 2006.
“That crash was a really stupid thing which I never expected. It was a big frustration for both of us. We were ordered to drive through a downtown course that had been prepared for a special stage but which for safety reason we had to drive as a road section.
“I explained this to Dani, but you know drivers like to have fun and make a show. He never realised just how slippery the road would be! It was the first and only time I saw Dani in tears.”
Citroen boss Olivier Quesnel
“Dani is a really nice guy and sometimes I think he should be less nice. Sometimes I think he should be more ‘mechant’, nasty. He is very determined, it would be good for him to be nasty!
“He is naturally really fast and it must be difficult for him because all the time I have to remind him that manufacturers’ points are what he has to win.
“Personally, if Citroen wins the world championship in Spain, then we can tell him to drive anyway he wants in Rally GB. Dani for me is a delight to have in the team. I am very pleased he drives for us, and I am pleased he will stay with us next year.”
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