The Swedish Rally in February will mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of French marque CitroÃ«n, with it marking the debut for its third World Rally Car, the DS3 WRC. Five DS3's will appear over the course of the 2011 World Rally Championship, two run by the CitroÃ«n Total World Rally Team and three in privateer hands.
The team has only one goal for the 2011 season, to retain its Manufacturer title, which would be its seventh, and to once again win the Drivers title, which SÃ©bastien Loeb won again in 2010. CitroÃ«n Racing Director, Olivier Quesnel, says the team are nervous but excited ahead of the coming season:
“I wouldn't say that we feel particularly relaxed! It's true that I'm looking forward to being in Sweden to find answers to all the questions that we're asking ourselves at the moment. Have we done a good job? Have we missed out on something? We'll only know a part of the answers at the end of the opening stages, but it should be remembered that Sweden is not really representative of the world championship as a whole. We have to keep a cool head. CitroÃ«n Racing is a proven winning machine, and there's no reason why it should go on the blink from one day to the next. I have every confidence in the team's work.”
The DS3 has big shoes to fill, with both its predecessors, the Xsara and C4, securing three world drivers titles, but CitroÃ«n are confident it has put together a package that will keep the team at the top of the sport. The car was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show last October, with CitroÃ«n Racing's Technical Manager, Xavier Mestelan-Pinon, explaining that a lot of work has gone into the car since then:
“Our priority has been to rack up the kilometres in testing in all kinds of conditions. Thanks to the construction of a second DS3 WRC for test purposes we've been able to organize a session every fortnight. These tests have allowed us to work on reliability, and also to get to know the car, how it reacts to setup changes etc. As time passed we froze the technical definition of the car. These past few weeks we've been concentrating on what might look like details, but which aren't – quite the opposite, in fact – like the positioning of the safety equipment and the FIA management systems, the installation of the crews and training them how work on the car outside the service parks. Our main difficulty has been trying to find hot weather conditions to work in: we managed to find some heat in the south of Europe.”
Leading the team's assault on the 2011 World Rally Championship will be seven time world champions SÃ©bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena. The French pairing hold just about all the records in the WRC, but the hunger is still there to win more rallies and smash more records.
Looking ahead to the new campaign, Loeb says: “It's a new challenge with far more unknown factors than in previous years. Our rivals have developed their cars and we'll have to wait for the opening rallies to establish a hierarchy. But even before that I have to be quicker than the guys who have the same car as me. Beating SÃ©bastien Ogier and Petter Solberg will be a tough challenge! I think it'll be a difficult season, but that only serves to boost my motivation even more!”
Talking about the new DS3 WRC, Loeb said: “The car feels very different to the C4. The DS3's shorter and so it's more agile in the tight corners, but it's also twitchier in the faster sections. The car's nice to drive and the performance of the engine means you can really get the best out of the chassis.
Loeb also added how he felt about the team's work over the winter: “I think the team's done a good job, but we haven't achieved the same level of development on all types of terrain. We've spent a lot of time on gravel as it's the type of surface we'll race on most frequently in the world championship. I reckon we've still got a lot of progress to make on snow.
Joining him in the factory squad full time in 2011 will be SÃ©bastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia, who competed for the works team in 2010 in three rallies, taking part in the remainder for the CitroÃ«n Junior Team, picking up two wins over the year.
Despite his success so far, Ogier is quick to not set many aims for the new season: “There are so many unknown factors that it's difficult to give a precise aim. The results of the Swedish Rally won't really provide a clear picture of the championship hierarchy. We'll know more about it after three or four rounds. Where we're concerned we won't be starting the first event in an overambitious frame of mind. So far we've only raced in two winter rallies, and it'll be difficult to compete on an equal footing with the Scandinavian drivers. Even if it's a long term objective I'm not obsessed by winning the world title. On the other hand, I want to score points in each rally, be among the front-runners and gain more experience in the WRC.”
Ogier also added how it felt behind the wheel of the new DS3 WRC: “I find that the more compact size of the DS3 has both advantages and disadvantages depending on the type of terrain. As the engine has less torque than what we've been used to, you have to keep the revs up all the time, a bit like with a normally aspirated engine. Because of the return to mechanical gear selection, the changes will be a bit slower and the driver will have to work harder. It won't pose problems in normal conditions, but could become tiring when it's very hot or at the end of long stages.”
With two World Class drivers in the same team, there is always a fear that a strong rivalry could break out, but Quesnel is confident this won't be the case:
“Both drivers are starting off with a blank score sheet. As was always the case in the past, CitroÃ«n is giving them absolutely identical cars. If one sets a better time than the other it's simply because he's quicker. I'm not the kind of guy who puts himself under pressure: I don't have to cope with any rivalry at the moment. What I can tell you is that we all belong to the same family. While the drivers' title is a bit more prestigious and receives more media coverage, the manufacturers' crown has considerable importance for the make. Our two drivers are intelligent guys and they're fully aware of what's at stake for CitroÃ«n.”
Total will remain as the teams title sponsor, continuing the brands long-standing partnership with the marque, while the famous Red Bull colours will also feature again on the DS3's, like they have done since 2008. Michelin will supply tyres for the cars, with Facom and Alcon also continuing as partners to the team.
The privateers DS3 WRC's will be run by CitroÃ«n Racing Technologies, with 2003 WRC Champion Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson set to start every round in the first. 2007 Formula One World Champion Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen and Kaj LindstrÃ¶m stay in the WRC for a second season and are set to take part in ten rallies, while Peter van Merksteijn and Eddy Chevaillier will run the final DS3, beginning their season at the Portuguese Rally.