Tuesday 24th January 2012


PH DOES THE MONTE

Behind the scenes with Citroen on the Monte Carlo Rally


Having pinned my hopes on 2012 being a healing year for the World Rally Championship, I found the political events of the past few weeks deeply frustrating - as did fans the world over. From a parochial point of view, Britain also lost its only top-line driver after Kris Meeke was dropped from the Mini World Rally Team.

The only way to see a rally
The only way to see a rally
Once the season got underway at Rallye Monte Carlo last week, however, I found myself willing to let these bygones be bygones because to me rallying remains a beguiling sport. No other form of international motorsport interacts with its host country like rallying does, and none offer its fans quite the same level of access to its cars and stars.

Air mobile
The WRC is also littered with insightful individuals who talk with such wisdom and passion on the eternal subject of driving quickly down a stretch of road. When Citroen Racing invited me to spend some rare face time with Yves Matton, team principal, and Xavier Mastelan-Pinon, technical director, during the course of the season opener, I was only too happy to accept. That we'd fly by helicopter from Valence to Monaco, via a stage of the rally, didn't really register. Honest.

Matton (right) and Mastelan-Pinon on the prowl
Matton (right) and Mastelan-Pinon on the prowl
Mastelan-Pinon is one of the central figures to Sebastien Loeb's remarkable run of success. He's responsible for designing a series of Citroen rally cars that the likes of Subaru, Ford, Mitsubishi and Peugeot couldn't better. Although modern rally cars accrue huge amounts of data as they pound along the stages, Mastelan-Pinon makes every effort to get away from Citroen Racing's service park nerve centre as often as possible to get into the forests or onto the mountains.

Our helicopter lands beside SS13, with Loeb leading by his customary comfortable margin. Mastelan-Pinon, Matton and I choose an uphill section with a sequence of fast lefts and rights through which we watch the lead runners race.

It seems unlikely to me that anything of real engineering value can be gleaned from simply watching the cars through a stage, but Mastelan-Pinon insists otherwise.

Mini suspension arouses Citroen's interest
Mini suspension arouses Citroen's interest
Checking out the competition
"It's very important to watch the cars," he said, as we return to the helicopter. "I saw that the Mini seems to be softer than our car, for example. I didn't see much difference between our DS3 and the Ford Fiesta, but the Mini is very different; the struts are much longer. I don't know if that's fast or not."

If the Mini proves to be a particularly competitive tarmac rally car, Citroen's engineers will have a fair of understanding of what their counterparts at Prodrive might be up to.

"I also saw some differences between each of our drivers," continues Mastelan-Pinon through the helicopter's intercom system as we're battered about by Alpine winds. "Mikko Hirvonen was clean through the corners while Loeb was a little bit more aggressive."

I'm glad he brought up the issue of his team's latest driver signing, because I'd been curious to know just what Citroen could gain from signing a driver who has won just three rallies in the past two seasons.

Hirvonen has impressed his new bosses
Hirvonen has impressed his new bosses
The latest flying Finn
As if on cue, Mastelan-Pinon and Matton each receive text messages to confirm that the Finn had set the fastest stage time on SS13, adding to the best run through the previous test. For the first two days of the rally, however, Hirvonen was somewhat off the pace. Matton is quick to defend his new charge. "Mikko has been very clever," he says. "When a driver isn't comfortable in a new car that he doesn't know well, he mustn't try to push hard. If he does push, he will make a mistake, crash or just go slower. Instead, he must be patient and take time to get comfortable in the car, then start to push."

Matton stresses the importance of conducting this process during a rally rather than a test session; a driver will start to learn a short test road very quickly, giving him a false confidence in the car, which will soon evaporate on unfamiliar competitive stages. "It takes a lot of experience and wisdom to realise this," continues Matton. "Mikko has been very clever this weekend."

Ford has opted for a similar set-up to Citroen's
Ford has opted for a similar set-up to Citroen's
Although Hirvonen hasn't been able to replicate the form of his remarkable 2009 season, during which he won four rallies and narrowly missed out on a first world title, the 31-year-old still has an awful lot to offer his new employers. For one thing, he's one of only two drivers to have scored victories in Ford's Fiesta RS WRC. "Mikko knows what worked well on the Ford," says Mastelan-Pinon, "so he can tell us what isn't working well on the DS3.

"The first five or 10 kilometres of his very first test in the car were the most important. We wanted to get his immediate feedback before he started to drive around the car's problems and before he started to learn the test road. Mikko is one of the only people in the world who can do this for us.

Matton is charged with maintaining winning ways
Matton is charged with maintaining winning ways
"As a Nordic driver, he can bring a lot of gravel experience to the team. In 2003, we brought Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz into the team to help us learn how to win rallies on gravel. Sebastien is now very good on gravel, but Mikko can help us to make the DS3 even better for gravel rallies."

In every championship that Citroen wins, McRae's legacy lives on.

Even if Hirvonen isn't regularly winning rallies, he has a wealth of experience that could keep Citroen ahead of the opposition. As we land at Monaco's heliport, Matton assures me that the Finn will have every opportunity to compete on an equal footing with Loeb. Only time will tell, but on the evidence of Rallye Monte Carlo, perhaps joining the rival that he couldn't beat might just give Hirvonen the impetus he needed to win that first would title. A change of champion would certainly help to revive an ailing motorsport series.


How do you solve a problem like Sebastien?

 


Author: Dan Prosser
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