The Checkered Flag talks C3 WRC setup, development and the challenges of Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship with Citroën’s Pierre Budar
It has become fashionable to pour scorn and cast shade on modern, compact World Rally Championship events. People complain that the events that form the present WRC are too short, too lightweight, and, whisper it, too easy. They yearn for the days when the RAC rally constituted a long-haul jaunt across the country, with stages conducted in the dead of night by drivers with little to no sleep, and when the benchmark for a small, compact stage would be something under the 50km mark.
The rose-tinted spec wearing, nostalgia sipping brigade might have a point when it comes to the length of present WRC events, but no one who made the pilgrimage to Wales Rally GB this year would doubt the stern test modern rallying represents. Put simply, driving near 400bhp rally cars between densely packed pines is every bit as mind-focussing as it was in 1986. You can’t sanitise a forest.
The British round of the WRC has long been known as a rally with something of a split personality, its character flippant, liable to change completely in step with the weather. It’s always fast, deceptively fast in fact, but even the briefest of showers can turn the stages into something akin to mud strewn ice rinks. Grip can and will change as quickly as the weather, roads degrade with alarming speed exposing a layer of polished, ultra slippy bedrock beneath, and it asks difficult questions of even the best-preserved of Michelins.
Viewing Rally GB through the prism of any World Rally team is an appealing prospect of course, but doing so through Citroën is a particularly fascinating one. After all, no other team has experienced such a rollercoaster of emotions since the advent of the new regulations some three seasons ago, and 2019 has been no different. Immense highs such as victory on the Monte, Mexico and in Turkey have been twinned with crushing lows and, in the case of Rally Germany, some very public disquiet.
The very character of the Welsh round of the WRC means that there really is nowhere to hide, and if the C3 WRC can perform in the Welsh slime, well then it follows that it can made competitive on any comparable, loose surface rally. Wales therefore represented the ideal opportunity to talk tactics, car development and Citroën’s future WRC participation with its sporting director, Pierre Budar.
Wales – A Unique Challenge
It’s hard to overstate just how daunting a task setting up a WRC car for a weekend spent chewing, then spitting out Welsh gravel is. Gravel is a surface constantly in a state of flux and as such can be counted on to degrade with the passage of cars over it. So far, so conventional – you could say the same of any of the other gravel tests which make up the WRC.
Where Wales differs is in the amount and variety of weather the crews are subjected to, and therefore the number of variables confronting any WRC chassis engineer. The ‘polishing’ of the stages means that come the second pass through, the lines selected by Ogier and Lappi offer about as much grip as sheet ice, which of course asks serious questions of even the most developed of suspension setups and differential maps.
“The WRC is so close and so competitive that setup has rarely been as important as it currently is, and particularly so in Wales,” explained Budar to The Checkered Flag. “Both Esapekka (Lappi) and Sebastien (Ogier) found Saturday’s extra-long leg a challenge in terms of setup, as there’s no way of knowing whether what works in the stages further South will be as effective when they’re closer to service.”
The WRC’s annual jaunt West also provides something of a lottery for those park service sages charged with road order strategy, something Citroën’s Pierre Budar readily confirmed.
“It’s difficult to know which is the best position on the road here this year, the conditions are that tricky. By experience everyone is thinking that it’s advantageous to run first on the road but it hasn’t been that clear cut.
“Esapekka ran first on the road yesterday (Saturday) and his feeling was that he had some advantage from that, but certainly not in all places and on all stages… there’s so much standing water to deal with. That’s what’s complicating the road order picture, the amount of standing water.”
Citroën’s Development Potential –2019, 2020 & 2021
One of the most fascinating yet hard to answer questions swirling around the WRC as the 2019 season reaches its climax, is how much extra performance is left to be extracted from the four respective protagonists. Budar is understandably coy about how much more power, traction and suspension articulation remains buried within the C3 WRC, just waiting to be extracted, but it’s safe to say that no one associated with the Versailles team has written the car off. Not yet.
“Homologation is very restrictive with just 3 ‘jokers’ for the chassis and 3 more for the engine. We’ll likely have more freedom next year with 5 jokers for each, but then that’s only as it and the following year will be ‘crossover’ years.
“We’ll need to develop the new, hybrid car for 2022 while still ensuring that the current C3 WRC is competitive. This means that next year will be the last season of development on the current car, after which it will be frozen.”
Budar confirms that it has become harder to extract incremental performance gains from the C3 WRC, not least as the tightly regulated nature of the modern WRC demands.
“It becomes more difficult to find performance when the car is already homologated. And it’s not like we don’t think of new potential parts from event to event and rally to rally, it’s just that we’re so restricted by the homologation system.”
When pressed as to which specific developmental angle Citroën plans to take the C3 down in the coming months, Budar was understandably reticent to divulge specifics, though he did admit that great importance was placed on a pre-Spain Catalan tarmac test, planned for the week after Wales.
“The cause of the issue we had in Germany was unique to that round, certainly restricted to tarmac. Nevertheless, we don’t want a repeat of the situation and so we made the decision to reorganise our development after Germany, which is another reason why we’re planning another tarmac test in Catalunya, to solve the problem we had earlier in the year.”
As anyone who watched footage from said test on social media will be able to confirm, it saw the debut of a far more aggressive set of aero appendages for the car, the C3 having sprouted a crop of Yaris-esque selection of splitters, wings and dive-planes. Proof, if it were needed, that Citroën remain wholly committed to its current, IC powered challenger.
Citroën & the WRC’ Hybrid Future
Citroën’s continued participation at rallying’s highest level remains a topic of heated discussion and not a little intrigue, not least as France’s finest has tasted unparalleled success and, in recent years, more trying times. Yet the announcement that the WRC will move to hybrid rules in two years’ time, presumably a precursor to a fully electric switch at some point in the future, has served to put the automotive cat amongst the OEM pigeons, and Budar makes no bones about the significance of the move from a Versailles perspective.
“There’s no question that a hybrid element is integral to our continuation in the sport. We need to demonstrate the value of the technology for use in the road car market, to showcase our willingness to embrace it. Doing so will mean a redesign of the car of course, but the potential to use hybrid power on the road sections – and in town centres at night in particular – is clear.”
That Budar should tow the party line in this regard is no surprise; after all, he’s paid to promote the Citroën brand and burnish its eco and sporting credentials. But Budar is also a man with an appreciation for the sporting element of the WRC, and as such he was swift to underscore some of the potential upsides of the move to hybrid power.
“Of course if you have this kind of technology then it’s important to use it for the good of the sport, also. That’s why we’re requesting permission to be able to use this additional power in the stage itself, which of course comes with its own issues in terms of strategy. It won’t be available over the whole stage as the demands on the battery would be too great, but as a carefully regulated power ‘boost’, used in conjunction with traditional Internal Combustion, that undoubtedly has potential.”
Then there’s the issue of cost, something of paramount importance in a motorsport sphere now dominated by reduced, ever more stringently monitored competition budgets. It goes without saying that adding in new, highly experimental hybrid battery technology carries this risk, but Budar feels that it’s one which can be managed.
“We’re pushing for as much component commonality as possible, with a plan for all teams to start with the same basic software. It will be completely new and if all four teams have the freedom to develop their own system then, well, it will become very costly very quickly. Let’s start with the same, learn how to use it, and then after a year maybe we have the freedom to develop our own system.”
While clearly passionate about rallying in general and the WRC in particular, Budar underscored the need for the sport to embrace hybrid technology in order to remain both relevant and viable for teams like Citroën. With 2022 rapidly careening into view and with a litany of new technologies to get to grips with, then master, the publication of the FIA’s final set of drafted regulations can’t come soon enough.
Safety First – The WRC’s Crowd Control Issue
Budar feels that the WRC’s embrace of cutting edge, semi-autonomous technology, the kind that’s an increasingly common sight on Citroën’s road cars, can also be a useful weapon in one of the biggest challenges facing the FIA and rally organisers across the board – crowd control. This was leant added weight over the course of the Wales weekend when a pair of Friday’s stages were cancelled due to poorly sited spectators.
“Rallying is unique in that it gives spectators so much freedom when it comes to selecting a viewing position, but, as we’ve seen this weekend, that can also bring problems. Keeping spectators safe is of course of paramount importance, and it’s something we think antonymous technology could help with. What form this would take is harder to tell, but it could be a case of a car spotting when spectators are in unsafe positions and sending their location to other, rival cars, or sending them to the FIA.“
“We cannot afford an accident with a spectator, it’s impossible. No manufacturer wants to become involved with an incident like that, so we have to improve spectator safety. It’s not an easy job and I know the FIA is doing its best, but they must find a way.“