Loeb aims to extend title lead
- 30th April 2007, 9:33am
Organised one month after the Rally de Portugal, Rally Argentina is another legendary event which is often quoted by the drivers as one of their favourites because of the outstanding welcome they are given, the mouth-watering smell of barbecued asados and the unique atmosphere of towns like Villa Carlos Paz, Mina Clavero and Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. All these ingredients and more give a distinctively festive feel to the trip to South America.
In addition to the country's charms, the event itself is described by many as the "the most complete challenge of the year". Indeed, it features a bit of everything, from high-speed jumps to slower, technically-demanding portions and some spectacular fast sections. The local speciality is the number of water-splashes that crews have to cross; an exercise that can be particularly complex when autumn rain falls in abundance over the Argentine sierra.
Because of this feature, Technical Manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon is particularly cautious before the start. "Our pre-event testing went well," he says. "However, as always, nothing can replace actual competition. The way the Citroën C4 WRC copes with water-splashes is a bit of an unknown factor. We will also have to see how it performs over the rougher portions, a type of terrain it has yet to encounter in anger. It will be interesting, too, to see how it goes on soft, rutted surfaces."
The celebrated Punilla, Calamuchita and Traslasierra Valleys through which the stages wind their way have traditionally been kind to Citroën which has claimed three consecutive successes on the South American event. Outgoing two-time winners Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena have also won this year's rounds in Mexico and Portugal and currently top the Drivers' championship standings. Even so, Sébastien prefers not to get carried away. "It's a great rally," he says. "The stages are challenging, the spectators are extremely enthusiastic and we always get to eat great meat! The C4 WRC has shown it is competitive on dirt, but we have also seen that we have had to push hard to make a difference. When you're fighting to the nearest second, it can always go either way. I am optimistic, but I think it will be very close."
This is Dani Sordo's third trip to Villa Carlos Paz, although Marc Martí who will be making his 100th WRC appearance here benefits from more experience of the event than his driver. "It's a highly varied event," observes the 2005 JWRC Champion whose primary objective will once again be to continue to learn. "I enjoyed my first two visits to Argentina but there is so much to learn. We will do our best to obtain another top result for Citroën."
Guy Fréquelin has bitter sweet memories of Argentina. He was unable to fully savour his win on the 1981 event because of a painful twisted neck but he has since made up for that thanks to the back-to-back successes of Carlos Sainz and Sébastien Loeb. "Argentina is one of the year's highlights. The setting, the well-behaved connoisseur spectators and the highly varied stages make it a remarkable event. Classic tests like Giulio Césare and El Cóndor mean it is never easy though. That's why I prefer to be cautious before the start. We have a chance of winning, but I don't expect it to be easy."
Three questions to....
Victory and third place for you in Portugal have put you back in the running in both championships...
"Sébastien Loeb, Daniel Elena and Citroën Sport put in a very good rally in Portugal which ended in victory for the team. On top of that, the awarding of a penalty to one of our rivals after the finish enabled us to come away with more points than we first thought expected by promoting Dani Sordo and Marc Martí to a podium finish. That leaves us just eight points off the lead in the Manufacturers' championship, while Seb has retrieved top spot in the Drivers' standings. Even so, the future still promises to be very difficult."
What was your opinion of Dani Sordo' performance in Portugal? What will your instructions be to him for Argentina?
"My view has been the same since the beginning of the year. Owing to his age and limited experience, we always knew that signing Dani involved a certain amount of risk and we saw that again in Portugal where he found it difficult through the twistier, sandier portions. My instructions for Argentina are simple: I want him to carry on learning and try to score the best result possible for Citroën."
Citroën has a good record in Argentina and you have also won the last two rounds of the 2007 championship. Can Citroën and the C4 keep up these winning runs?
"I hope we will once again be in contention for victory. Everyone at Citroën Sport has worked hard to give our crews cars that will enable them to battle at the sharp end. Argentina will again be virgin territory for the Citroën C4 WRC. Its performance on the last few rounds show that we are already making a great deal of its potential. We need to continue working in the same direction..."
Portugal saw you mark the tenth anniversary of the beginning of your career by taking your 31st WRC win. You have come on a long way...
"I don't really have all that much hindsight to talk about it, but it's true that our careers have moved on pretty quickly since Daniel and I already have three titles under our belts together. We have been able to climb the ladder quite quickly but, given my age when I started out, I didn't really have any choice in the matter. I have always tried to make the most of the different opportunities I have had to show what I could do. Ten years ago, I couldn't have imagined how my career would take me where it has today but I'm obviously delighted with the way things have turned out."
Your result in Portugal means you will be on 'road-sweeping' duty again in Argentina...
"Our results since Norway couldn't have been better. But Marcus Grönholm followed us across the line each time, so it was difficult to make any real inroads into his lead. Had he not been penalised in Portugal, we would have been separated by two points today. As it stands, I am now one point clear. That confirms how crucial consistency is. We will effectively be first on the road on Day 1 in Argentina but he will be just one place behind us, so it shouldn't have too big an incidence. Anyway, as I always say, if I'm first on the road it's because I'm leading the World Championship."
What is your opinion of the super-special in Buenos Aires?
"I hope there will be a good atmosphere in the stadium because the logistics are a little complex for just one stage which, to my mind, has little to do with the rally. If super-specials are organised in the region of events for those spectators who can't get out to the stages, so be it? But when they became a priority, I really hope they're worth it..."
What is your analysis of your performance in Portugal?
"Despite my two previous visits to Portugal, I found that my pacenotes lacked precision. On a number of occasions I found myself driving more from memory than as a function of the notes Marc was calling out to me. Everyone agrees that it was a complex event. I am still learning and, at the end of the day, the result wasn't bad for Citroën, although the standings were only finalised after the finish."
Is Rally Argentina an event you enjoy?
"For a start, it's always nice to compete in a country where they speak Spanish! The atmosphere is always first class, the people are very hospitable and the girls are really beautiful. The stages are very varied and are consequently interesting. We will also contest a super-special in the River Plate Stadium where I imagine there will be a big crowd. Along with Citroën, we will see how the C4 WRC copes with the numerous water-splashes."
What is the best way to tackle the water-splashes?
"I don't know if there is a 'best way'. During recce, we will look to see how deep the water is and what the state of the river bed is. When you come across them for the first time in anger, it's best not to attempt to take them flat out. The width of the crossing is an important factor. If they are short, then you are only in the water for a short time so you don't have to slow down too much. During the longer water-splashes, it can feel as though you're surfing and it is more difficult to control the car."
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