March 8, 2005 Next weekend (March 11-13) the World Rally Championship does one of the major climatic and geographical swaps that makes it the toughest challenges for drivers and cars alike, with the snow of Sweden swapped for the dust and rocks of Mexico and a leap in altitude from near sea level to 2700 metres to contest the Corona Rally Mexico. "Both Mexico and the warmth of the welcome we received are remarkable," says World Champion Sebastien Loeb. "The stages are quite fast and not too rough. I like it. The thing I found the most surprising to begin with was the inevitable drop off in power you get at this altitude. You can't help but feel it and it tends to be the only thing you think of the most."
The route that awaits competitors in Mexico comprises fourteen all-gravel stages, eight of which are different. They are all located within a rectangle of 45 km x 35 km, making the Corona Rally Mexico one of the events with the most favourable total distance/total stage distance ratio. The regional capital Leon is situated in the north-west corner of this rectangle and provides teams with the air-conditioned comfort of the championship's only entirely covered Service Park! In the diagonally opposite corner, to the south east, is the former mining town of Guanajuato which lends its elegant, historic backdrop to the ceremonial start.
Situated on Mexico's central plain, Leon sits at an altitude of 1,819 m and is flanked to the east by the lofty 'tierras frias' - the cold lands - through which the stages twist. The average altitude of individual stages varies between 2,085 and 2,469 metres, peaking at 2,737 metres near the village of El Tablon (SS2/5). Indeed, more than the physical characteristics of the stages, which offer a similar blend of smooth and rough dirt to that found in Rally Argentina, it is the uncustomary altitude to which competitors climb that stands out as the Mexican round's most striking feature.
At these altitudes, even turbocharged engines gasp for breath in the rarefied air, a consideration which calls for specific mapping. Also, what goes up must come down and the team saw last year that the long descents made big demands on the brakes.
"That's a lesson we learnt!" explains Xavier Mestelan-Pinon who has taken over from Jean-Claude Vaucard as Technical Manager. "During our pre-Mexico tests in January in Spain and then at Chateau-Lastours with Sebastien, Francois and also Carlos Sainz, this is a point we worked on, taking into account the demands our two drivers make of their brakes. At the same time, concerning set-up, we combined the data brought back from Mexico in 2004 and the progress we have made since with the Xsara elsewhere. We also tested the new products proposed by our partner Michelin."
Guy Frequelin estimates that three factors of the current Citroen squad were at ease in Mexico last year.
"Sebastien Loeb led before retiring, the Xsara stayed in contention for victory afterwards with Carlos Sainz and... Francois Duval finished 2nd in another team's colours. There's good reason to be optimistic that we can achieve the vital objective of getting both our cars to the finish, in a strong position!"
Questions to Guy Frequelin...
Sweden was a rather bleak outing for you, and not only because of the shortage of snow...
"I can't conceal that the result was a big disappointment. And that disappointment was proportional to the hopes we had as the event unfolded. After ten of the twenty stages, Sebastien was in 3rd position following a straight fight and in close contact with the two fastest Nordics.
"Meanwhile, Francois was driving very safely and followed in 4th place. In terms of performance, the Xsara was up there with the best which proves how good a job the technical team had done in reproducing the competitive set-up of the car which had enabled us to win the previous year. But after that everything began to go less well..."
"Sebastien's engine problem was the first since the 2003 Acropolis Rally. Is it possible to read into this a consequence of the new requirement for the same engine to cover two events?
"Since the 2003 Acropolis Rally, the Xsara has notched up 57 starts in 25 rallies without an engine problem. In testing, our engines covered much more than the stage distance of two rallies. But, as I underlined before the Monte Carlo Rally, we didn't have enough hindsight during rallies to judge this new regulation and that in the meantime we would remain on our guard. On the Monday after the Swedish Rally, we began looking to identify the nature of the grain of sand that affected the engine with which we won the Monte Carlo Rally. We think we have located it. We will know after New Zealand whether we were right..."
You are slightly down on the leaders in both championships. What will be your tactic in Mexico where the Xsara was a main player in 2004? Will you be looking to attack with a view to bridging the gap rapidly or will you adopt a more patient approach?
"Given the points scoring system employed for both championships, it could take some time to bridge the gap. There is still a long way to go in the season. In Mexico, the vital thing for us will be to get both cars to the finish.
"Given last year's performance of Sebastien, Carlos... and Francois , in someone else's colours, if the two Xsaras complete the distance without a problem, we can hope to finish in the big points. That's when we will start doing the counting!"
Questions to Sebastien Loeb...
In 2003, you only took part in the recce but you came away with a good feeling for the event. Was that positive impression confirmed in 2004?
"It was! I found both the country and the warmth of the welcome we received remarkable. Globally, it's a pleasant rally. The stages are quite fast and not too rough. I like it. The thing I found the most surprising to begin with was the inevitable drop off in power you get at this altitude. You can't help but feel it and it tends to be the only thing you think of...
"Then you begin to get accustomed to it and you end up not paying it any more attention. In any case, it's the same for everyone. I didn't reach the finish but we were competitive and Carlos confirmed that impression after our retirement."
The return to gravel and not having to run first on the road is a positive thing...
"Last year, despite it being the middle of the dry season, it rained a lot the day before the start and that played in my favour because I wasn't too penalised running first on the road. Not running first is an advantage, but being first on the road on the first day is also a good thing because it means you are leading the championship.
"So all things considered, I prefer to run first! Last year, that was often the case and I didn't come out of it too badly, once or twice with a little help from the rain, as in Mexico... I am looking forward to competing on gravel again. I like the driving on the loose, I like sliding. Mexico will also be a chance to see how the different teams compare, and notably the contest between the two tyre manufacturers involved in the WRC..." This time last year you led the championship and you said that pressure is something you feel when you're behind. Do you still believe that?
"In Mexico, we know we need to finish to prevent someone pulling out a clear lead in the two championships. The current leaders, Toni Gardemeister and Markko Martin, have shown how important reliability is. Personally, I am level with Petter Solberg, while Marcus Gronholm is a little further back.
"It's far from being a desperate situation and nobody has pulled out a clear-cut gap, so it will be possible to attack without making silly mistakes. After this rally, which is the first of the year on the most frequently encountered surface in the championship, we will have a precise idea of the relative competitiveness of the teams in 2005... I think we can come out of Mexico well!"
Questions to Francois Duval...
Last year you competed in Mexico for the first time and finished in an excellent 2nd place, the first of your career. What do you remember of the country and the event?
"Before the start, we were given a warm welcome. I don't think I've seen so many VW Beetles in my life. The people were very nice, glad to see us and the rally was impeccably organised. The event was new to everyone and I was curious to see how I would compare with the likes of such experienced drivers as Carlos [Sainz] and Marcus [Gronholm]. I set some good times. I was globally pleased with my weekend and naturally delighted to finish 2nd so soon after finishing on the podium in Monaco."
If you had to compare the Mexican stages with another WRC round, which one would you choose? How will you approach this event?
"The Mexican stages are quite similar to those of Argentina. They're not easy to read, there are sandy portions and the roads are narrow in places. As for my approach, it's clear we have to finish, and high up.
"That means finding the right pace, quick and safe. In Sweden, before losing a lot of time when I was forced to change a wheel following a puncture, I think I found that balance. I hope I can do the same on the loose, that I am spared problems and that I can bring home some valuable points for the team.
"That said, I don't feel under any additional pressure. The pressure that comes naturally competing in such a demanding championship is quite enough!"
After two events, how do you feel with the Citroen team?
"I have taken onboard a lot of information and I am still discovering certain things. The remarkable thing is the way we are looked after. The team is clearly very close to its drivers and very much in demand of information from them. The more we talk, the better it is. I am not someone who talks a lot naturally and I'm not accustomed to this way of working. However, I feel I need to communicate much more with the members of the team. I intend to do that and I know I will adapt rapidly..." One of the finest resources on the planet for rally enthusiasts is the World Rally Championship site.View gallery - 4 images