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– Citroën could claim an eighth Manufacturers’ title, with Sébastien Loeb in line to clinch a ninth consecutive Drivers’ title at the Rallye de France-Alsace
– Only Hirvonen and Lehtinen stand in the way of Loeb and Elena in France
– Hirvonen hopeful of a strong performance after victory in Rally Vosgien, which posed similar challenges
– Hirvonen not expecting to beat Loeb in ‘normal racing conditions’ as he focuses on points for Manufacturers’ title

Held for the third time this year in Alsace and the Vosges, the Rallye de France should see the Citroën Total World Rally Team enjoy great support from the home crowds. As was the case in 2010, Loeb and Elena return to Seb’s native region with a chance of being crowned World Champion there. Given that their team-mates, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, are the only ones standing between them and a ninth consecutive title, everyone in the team is in a very relaxed mood. A strong overall performance would also enable Citroën to win its eighth Manufacturers’ title, so the stakes are high for the home round.

Ever since it moved to Alsace in 2010, the Rallye de France has enjoyed a level of popularity that compares favourably with the enthusiasm generated by the WRC in Argentina, Mexico, Finland and Spain. Several hundred thousand fans looked on as Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena won the first event and with it, their seventh world title. Forced out of the rally prematurely last year, the crew returns this year highly determined to add to their tally of 74 wins.

“Like the fans who turned out to support me, I was disappointed to retire last year, but that kind of thing is also part and parcel of racing,” confirmed Seb. “I feel that there’s some sort of revenge to be had! This year, we can secure the outcome of both championships. In the Drivers’ championship, there is only Mikko and me that can win the title. Obviously, I’d prefer it if I won and I’m going be trying very hard to do just that. The maths isn’t very complicated, as I will win the title if I finish ahead of my team-mate at the weekend. Just like the other rounds, this rally has specific features that give the event its complexity. However, even with the artificial chicanes that you sometimes find on the itinerary, the stages are among the quickest that we have ever completed. The constant changes in road surface make the tarmac difficult to ‘read’ and the work of the gravel crews is essential given that the road can become very dirty between the two runs. Especially if it rains…”

Rain, fog, the racing line made slippery by mud: Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are all the more familiar with these factors following their winning performance Rallye Vosgien. “It was a great learning experience for me. I don’t think I have ever driven in such difficult conditions on tarmac,” admitted the Finn. “We tested different set-ups to adapt the DS3 WRC to the road conditions, which varied between being wet, drying and totally dry.”

Third in Germany at his first ‘proper’ tarmac rally in the Citroën, Mikko believes he is gradually improving: “Although it is not my favourite surface, I like tarmac and I can’t wait to compete in the Rallye de France! In Germany, gradually I understood how to change my driving style to suit the characteristics of the DS3 WRC. I made even more progress last week, so we’ll see how far I have come. To be honest, I’m not thinking about the Drivers’ title at all. Seb has been as strong as ever this year and he has such a big lead that I don’t see how I can beat him in normal racing conditions. My goal is to continue to improve and score the points needed by Citroën to win the Manufacturers’ World Championship.”

In order to be crowned World Champion after this rally; Sébastien Loeb will need to hold onto 56 of his 61-point lead over Mikko Hirvonen. In the Manufacturers’ championship, the Citroën Total World Rally Team needs to maintain a lead of over 86 points, compared with its 111-point lead ahead of the French round of the WRC.

Citroën Racing outlined plans for its future in motorsport in an announcement at the 2012 Paris Motor Show. So, you are not intending to defend your title next year?

“I have been asked about it so many times, so it had to happen eventually! It wasn’t an easy decision to take. On theone hand, I have to admit that I am a little tired of the schedule imposed by the World Rally Championship. What with the test sessions, reconnaissance and the various other things, I spend a lot of time away from my family. Having said that, I still love driving and winning. This season seems to show that I still have the pace, but I didn’t want to stop after competing in one season too many either. I’ll still be around in 2013, but not as consistently as now, competing at rallies that I like and which are important for Citroën. I couldn’t not include the Rallye Monte-Carlo in my diary, so I’ll be starting the season on January 15 along with everyone else!”

The Brand has also announced that it is considering entering the WTCC with you. Who decided that you should go down that road?

“In the last few months, I have held lots of discussions with Frédéric Banzet[1] and Yves Matton[2]. Over the last ten years, I could have taken up offers to go elsewhere, but I have always preferred to stay with the team that gave me my chance. When we started talking about the role of ambassador that I might have in the future, I quickly felt that I would need an active role to feel completely satisfied. Given that I wanted to pursue my career in track racing, we came up with this idea together. After considering the various racing categories, the WTCC emerged as the best option. There are still a number of variables and imponderables in the equation, but I am excited about the prospect of competing in this championship.

Before all that, there is the small matter of the upcoming Rallye de France. Many people think it will be a mere formality…

“Well, they couldn’t be more wrong! Our rivals showed in Wales that they were more than capable of matching us, although I think we should be quicker than them on tarmac. But first and foremost, we’ll have to contend with the itinerary itself! There are some stages that we know very well, and others that are new and we’ll have to get to grips with. If it rains, I think the race could be very complicated, with some very tough tyre choices to make. I’ll be going for the win and the world title, but nothing can be taken for granted before the finish…”

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