The countdown has begun. In a few days’ time, the World Rally Championship returns to action on the wintry roads of Rallye Monte-Carlo. In its second season in the category with the C3 WRC, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT has opted for stability, its driver line-up once again consisting of Kris Meeke / Paul Nagle and Craig Breen / Scott Martin.
AT ONE WITH YOUR CAR
At Rallye Monte-Carlo, more so than elsewhere, the crews and teams must really know their cars inside out. They need to be truly at one with the car, anticipating each of its reactions as precisely as possible, so as not to get caught out by the tricky conditions. Sometimes there can be a patch of black ice that suddenly appears on a bend, other times there is a heap of soft snow or even a puddle of water. Having developed the Citroën C3 WRC in 2016 and then competed in it last year, Kris Meeke and Craig Breen have racked up a lot of miles in the car, in a wide variety of conditions and on various road surfaces. This experience represents a clear advantage for the brand at the 86th Rallye Monte-Carlo, the setting for the start of the 2018 season, which will see the C3 WRC tackle its second year in the WRC.
After spending a year back in the category learning and improving, the C3 WRC secured two promising wins (Mexico and Catalonia) and finished as the runner up in Germany, meaning this campaign will be all about confirmation for the team.
The team’s greatest hopes of success in Monte-Carlo rest with Kris Meeke, who claimed both of Citroën’s rally wins last year and is particularly experienced at this event. Buoyed by what he learned in 2017, the Ulsterman is determined to make the most of his experience and feature consistently among the leaders this year. Finishing Monte without incident invariably means you have made a good start to the season. Over the years and his numerous appearances in the Principality, Meeke has developed the ability to spot changes in grip, and to drive with a mix of tyre compounds. Although not as familiar with the roads around Monaco as his team mate, Craig Breen does not intend to be outdone. Having finished an excellent fifth overall at last year’s rally in the DS3 WRC, he has the potential to do even better this season in the C3 WRC. In order to get the most out of the car, he – like Kris Meeke – completed three days of intensive testing, split across two sessions. The first session, held before Christmas, provided the team with the chance to work on tarmac, varying from bone dry to absolutely soaking wet, whilst the second session, held last week on roads around Gap, was intended to test the C3 WRC in conditions as close as possible to those the crews will experience this week, as well as on snow. These sessions also provided an opportunity to continue working on maximising the car’s operating window.
NO SHORTAGE OF DIFFICULTIES AHEAD
Anyone harbouring hopes of finishing on the podium opposite the Palais Princier on Sunday will first of all need to successfully negotiate many hazards throughout the event’s four days of rallying. Four legs will see the competitors tackle some of the most demanding roads in Isère, Drôme, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes de Haute Provence and Alpes-Maritimes. The action gets underway on Thursday evening with one of the rally’s truly iconic stages, Thoard-Sisteron. Always tricky around the Col de Fontbelle, this year the stage is contested in the opposite direction to usual, an unprecedented move, and in the dark. The rally concludes with the equally famous Col de Turini, on which the C3 WRC claimed its very first stage win last year.
Initially contested in the dry, a thin layer of fresh snow fell on the stage two hours later for the second pass. This demonstrates the true challenge of the Monte-Carlo rally: its wintry nature, and the fact that road conditions can change so quickly from one side of the mountain to the other, mean that tyre choice is absolutely critical. Based on experience from previous years, with assistance from the ice and snow crews, and on the ground informants, it is a matter of estimating what will be the best compromise on tyre choice for the next loop of stages, whilst also adapting the car’s settings accordingly. It’s a huge challenge.
2018 RALLYE MONTE-CARLO KEY FIGURES
- 17 timed stages covering a total of 388,59 km
- Four types of Michelin tyres: snow tyre (Pilot Alpin A41), snow tyre with studs (Pilot Alpin A41 CL), soft tyre (Pilot Sport S6) and super soft tyre (Pilot Sport SS6). Both Pilot Sport S6 and Pilot Sport SS6 are brand-new ones
- Seven wins for Citroën and Loeb-Elena in Rallye Monte-Carlo (2003-2005 in Xsara WRC, 2007-2008 in C4 WRC, 2012-2013 in DS3 WRC)
- Two wins for the Citroën C3 WRC until now (Mexico and Spain 2017)
A RALLY, A CHALLENGE
The importance of the relationship between the crews and the ice / snow crews
At Monte-Carlo, the crew and their ice / snow crews must have a perfectly developed understanding. The ice / snow crews run through the stages around two hours before the WRC crews, armed with a copy of their pace notes in order to make any corrections. The changes can be substantial on these stages if, for example, it has snowed between the recce and the start of the stage. The road conditions also tend to change a lot between the first and second pass on a stage. The difficulty for the ice / snow crews therefore involves having the same view of the road as the crew would have, and also keeping the same, specific language as the crew. Which is why an incredible amount of trust and knowledge of one another is called for. Craig Breen has been working with Mikko Hirvonen (with co-driver Andy Hayes) since 2016 whilst Kris Meeke has used the services of Stephen Whitford and Derek Brannigan since 2014 and 2009 respectively.
Didier Clément, now Technical Coordinator and Customer Racing Manager, recalls
“I remember when we won here in 2012 with Sébastien and Daniel. They only really secured the win on the third leg, due to making the right call on tyres, as is often the case at Monte-Carlo. That day, we had to contest the Saint Jean en Royans stage, which was mostly damp or wet, and then Cimetière de Vassieux, where there was snow and ice on the stage. So we needed soft compound slicks for the first stage, and studded tyres for the next one. But Seb was worried about losing a lot of time on Saint Jean en Royans by going with a mix of these two types of compound. Right up until a minute before the start, there were only two soft-compound slicks on the car and two studded tyres in the boot. But our analysis showed that we had to give preference to Cimetière de Vassieux, by going with four studded tyres. He let me choose the two missing tyres, which were of course two studded tyres. He produced an incredible performance on Saint Jean en Royans, losing only sixteen seconds with his inappropriate tyre set up, before securing overall victory on the following stage thanks to his four studded tyres.”
Pierre Budar, Citroën Racing Team Principal: “The new season is upon us, which obviously means both excitement and uncertainty. After claiming second place in Germany and winning in Spain in the second part of 2017, which confirmed the growing strength of the team, I am determined to continue the work begun by Yves Matton, so that the team picks up in 2018 where it left off at the end of last year. This is especially the case since the C3 WRC has been further improved during the off season, with intensive work put into widening its operating spectrum. Kris Meeke has the required experience to fight at the front at this unique event, as he showed in 2016, whilst Craig gained a lot of confidence from last year’s appearance and is determined to use it to push for a good position. They both know that you can’t approach this rally just like any other: you must remain composed and treat the stages with the respect they deserve to avoid getting caught out by one of the many tricky sections.”
Christophe Besse, Technical Director: “Rallye Monte-Carlo is above all about the drivers and the tyres. You need a car that is easy to drive, smooth in terms of its reactions, so that the driver feels confident behind the wheel regardless of the level of grip encountered. That’s what our work focused on during the tests. The stages are generally held on bumpy, uneven roads, which is why we also worked on making further improvements to the C3 WRC’s damper system. We equally tried to run through a large number of potential conditions, be it ice or snow, in the rain or on tarmac that was just cold and wet. On the one hand, the idea was to try out the two new Michelin tyres, and on the other hand, it was a matter of reviewing as wider range of tyre options as possible. As the stages are grouped together in loops, you never really have the right tyres at the right time. The challenge, therefore, is knowing how much time you’ll lose with studded tyres on dry tarmac in order to opt for the best compromise.”
Kris Meeke: “Monte is probably one of the season’s hardest rallies, because of the constant changes in grip, but I’ve always really enjoyed it. I’ve also been quick here. I won the event in the Junior WRC class in 2005, I picked up a podium (3rd) on my full-time return to the WRC with Citroën in 2014 and I fought for the win in 2016. So I think that we can do a good job here, especially since our off season tests were held on roads that are fairly representative of what we’ll be facing during the rally, with a good variety of weather conditions. The test sessions also enabled us to keep improving the ability of our C3 WRC to adapt to changes in road surface, particularly by heading back to the Col de Faye, which is where we were least comfortable last year.”
Number of appearances at the event: 9
Best result: 3rd (2014)
Craig Breen: “Monte-Carlo is a rally that I love. It’s a unique challenge, something you don’t get on any of the other events. Until 2017, however, I never felt sufficiently confident in the kind of changeable, slippery conditions you get here. But last year, with the old car, we surprised ourselves. With a bit more horsepower, we could have aimed for the podium, so that gives me confidence. I’d like to think we can do it this time around, even though I’m not the most experienced driver in the line-up. Especially in that based on what we learned in 2017, we come into this event better prepared and with a C3 WRC that is even more versatile.”
Number of appearances at the event: 3
Best result: 5th (2017)