The moment that WRC fans have been desperately waiting for is finally upon us: in a few days, the 2017 World Rally Championship will get underway on the stages of the legendary Rallye Monte-Carlo. The Citroën C3 WRC – designed to meet the new FIA regulations – will be making its competitive debut. Driven by Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle and Stéphane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau, two cars have been entered for the opening round of the season.
RALLYE MONTE-CARLO: SIMPLY ICONIC
Apart from the prestige evoked by its name, Rallye Monte-Carlo owes much of its reputation to the unpredictability of the rallying conditions. In January, the roads in the hills of the south-west of France can be snow-covered, icy, wet or just dry, meaning that in a single stage, drivers can experience all of these conditions. Tyre choice is therefore of critical importance. It’s all about estimating, for an entire loop of stages, what represents the best compromise. Gaps can open up and disappear very quickly, making the race even more exciting.
On this, the 85th running of the event, the oldest rally in the world will be spread over four days. On Thursday, 19 January, the rally will get underway in the evening, with the ceremonial start in Monaco. The crews will then head towards Gap, where they will tackle two evening stages, one of which is new this year. After a short night’s rest, day two promises to be incredibly intense, with two loops of three stages contested in the Isère and Hautes-Alpes departments. On Saturday, the competitors return to Monaco, completing five stages on the way. The final leg, contested with no service, will see the crews tackle the famous Col de Turini. The rally is scheduled to finish in the Principality on Sunday, 22 January, in the early afternoon.
THE CHALLENGES: THE START OF A NEW ERA FOR THE WRC
The start of a new season is invariably the source of great interest for rally fans. But this year, the excitement has been ramped up with the introduction of new cars, more powerful and spectacular than their predecessors. In addition to the new regulations and cars, this year’s driver transfer market has been particularly eventful and intriguing, so much so that we enter the 2017 season with a large number of unknowns and variables.
On its return as a works team to the WRC, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT has generated a lot of interest, but no one is getting carried away in the ranks of the Red Army. Everyone is eager to see the first times, with a mix of excitement and anxiety, to find out if the results of all the hard work over the last two years or so meet the ambitions of the brand.
At four of the year’s first five rallies, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT will only enter two C3 WRCs.
This time, Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle and Stéphane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau have been tasked with scoring points towards the Manufacturers’ World Championship. Meanwhile, Craig Breen/Scott Martin will be competing in a previous generation car. They will therefore be able to score points in the Drivers’ World Championship.
Last year, Kris Meeke was fighting for the lead before he had to retire. Meanwhile, Stéphane Lefebvre finished fifth, which remains his best result in the World Championship. This year, the team-mates will have the same ambition: eliminate the unknowns and manage the variables as they try to solve the tricky equation posed by the 2017 Rallye Monte-Carlo.
2017 RALLYE MONTE-CARLO KEY FIGURES
– 17 timed stages covering a total of 382,65 km
– 76 entries, including 10 2017 generation WRCs
– 41 tyres per crew (maximum), chosen from a total of 72 with 4 types of compound
– 22 different professions working within the Citroën Racing Team: engineers, specialist mechanics, engine specialists, gravel/tarmac crews, meteorologists, press officers, caterers, drivers, etc.
WHAT THEY HAD TO SAY
Yves Matton, Team Principal, Citroën Racing: “As is always the case at the start of a new programme, we do feel that a few extra days would have been very welcome in order to spend more time developing the car. The development of the C3 WRC has been the shortest in the history of Citroën Racing and we have to stress the extraordinary investment made by our teams over the last few months. Having said that, we are eager to see where we stand. That competitive spirit is hard-wired in us. The car seems to be well-designed and consistent, but we’ll just have to see how it compares with its rivals. Our crews will have two different approaches. Kris showed last year that he has the ability to win this rally. But of course, we need to differentiate between driving throughout a day on a test run and completing a four-day rally with only two passes on the stages in recce. We’ll need to be defensive at the start, to see where the competition lies and then look ahead to the rest of the rally. It will be different for Stéphane. Like Craig, we want to take him to a level where he can challenge for wins. But before that, there will still be a period of learning, especially in the first half of the season. He needs to aim for a points finish and ensure he makes it to the end. We only have two cars here, which means that there’s no backup option or safety net.”
Laurent Fregosi, Technical Director, Citroën Racing: “We come to Monte-Carlo with the feeling that we have done some good testing to prepare for this rally. The drivers seem comfortable in the C3 WRC and that makes us optimistic about the raw performance levels of the car. Preparations for Monte-Carlo concentrated in two areas: test a wide variety of tyre combinations and explore the set-up options, in order to check if the usual ‘recipes’ work with this new car. We spent a lot of time studying the mapping of the active central differential. This new component allows us to subtly adjust the handling of the car depending on the road conditions. The aim is to provide the drivers with an ‘easy’ car, which is forgiving when there is a sudden change in grip. This first rally will also provide us with a good test of our car’s reliability. On this surface, it’s mainly the driveshaft that is given a bit of a hammering during the changes in grip.”
Kris Meeke: “We’re getting close to the point where we should be ready to start a rally in the best possible conditions. After our last test sessions, I can’t wait to move onto the next stage. I have the feeling that we’ll be in the spotlight here, but I hope I can concentrate on my driving. It’s never easy to compete at Monte-Carlo. At each service, we’ll need to put our heads together to come up with the right – or the least wrong – tyre choice. People have no idea of the mountains of work done during test sessions to acquire data and then work out whether a given option is the right one. In this area, Citroën Racing has a great deal of experience that I can make use of. For this first rally, my aim is pretty simple: stay relaxed and enjoy myself in the car. They do say, and rightly so, that anything can happen at Monte-Carlo.”
Stêphane Lefebvre: “Gradually, I realise that the day of reckoning is getting closer. What we have been talking about for months as being in the future is now here, in the present. We have been discussing all sorts of things with the engineers, every day, talking about the slightest detail related to my car. Nothing has been left to chance and it’s genuinely fascinating to be in the middle of this works team. On this, my first rally with this status, I will be aiming to finish in a good position and score as many points as possible for Citroën. I think I’m still short of time behind the wheel with the C3 WRC and I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I have to get to grips with the car in racing conditions before trying to drive on the limit. I think we’re all in the same boat to some extent, with a number of unknowns in all areas.”
Craig Breen: “I will certainly be the driver under the least pressure this weekend. I’m pleased to start my season in an old car, because I don’t have a lot of experience at Monte-Carlo. This appearance will give me the chance to learn about the rally. It will also be an opportunity to note the gap between the two generations of World Rally Cars. My priority is to rack up the miles, but I will also be pleased if I manage to score a few points. They may come in handy in the final reckoning at the end of the season.”