World Rally Championship pace-setter Sébastien Loeb has indicated that he will likely be adopting a cautious approach towards this weekend's Rally Australia – reasoning that such is his advantage in the 2011 title standings, 'we don't have to take a lot of risks'.
Loeb heads Down Under holding a 25-point margin over his closest pursuer, Citroën Total World Rally Team team-mate, namesake – and now arguably also sworn rival – Sébastien Ogier. The pair fell out on Rallye Deutschland last month, with winner Ogier making no bones about his distaste for Citroën's request to him to allow his compatriot to triumph – and the upshot is that any semblance of inter-team harmony has been thoroughly blown apart arriving in Australia.
As the WRC prepares to exchange the German tarmac for the gravel and forest tracks of Coffs Harbour in New South Wales – the event's third new location in as many editions, and one set to provide competitors with a stern test of alternating and untried twisty and fast sections – Loeb is bidding to retain the DS3 WRC's unbeaten run on gravel, even if he acknowledges that winning the rally will not be the be-all-and-end-all. The seven-time world champion will be handicapped by running first-on-the-road, but he quips that he is 'getting used to it' now.
“You just have to factor in this parameter,” explained the man who has prevailed already this season in Mexico, Sardinia, Argentina and Finland. “Obviously, we don't know these stages, but it looks like we'll have dry weather so I expect to lose a lot of time on the first day. We've also proved that we can win despite this handicap, though, and we're determined to score the maximum number of points on this rally – but thanks to our lead in the world championship, we don't have to take a lot of risks.”
Indeed, having emerged victorious on eight of the nine rallies thus far this season, the Citroën Total World Rally Team will be the clear favourite for glory in Oz – and although a long shot, with a 91-point margin in the manufacturers' table, a one-two finish for Messieurs Loeb and Ogier could just assure the French outfit of its seventh world title three rounds from the end of the campaign.
“This overall result has given a great deal of satisfaction to the Citroën Racing technicians and engineers who have never stopped working to make the car quick and reliable,” reflected technical manager Xavier Mestelan-Pinon of the DS3 WRC's outstanding success to-date. “It's the fruit of painstaking work based on ten years' experience at the top level in rallying.
“This score doesn't really tell the truth about the fight put up by our rivals, though. Quite a few rallies have been won by seconds – or even less! We've never come out on top easily, and our rivals are never far behind in terms of sheer performance. We've managed to make the difference because of our reliability, as none of the Citroën Total World Rally Team cars have been eliminated by mechanical problems.
“Because of the technical regulations, we can't update the car as quickly as in the past, but we still have a few areas left and we can have options homologated every three months. We've already used two of the five jokers granted by the FIA for the car's first year. These modifications have been made to the suspension and the steering. Where the engine's concerned, we're now working more in view of 2012. We have evolutions aimed at improving the overall performance and reliability, as we'll have to do six rallies with the same engine!”
“We've defined the car's set-up [for Australia] according to the type of weather we're expecting and the layout of the stages. According to the information we've collected, we can expect very quick and relatively car-friendly stages. Even so, each rally has its own special features and we don't exactly know what we'll have to cope with. As in all the rallies, the race engineers will go through the stages to assess the difficulties of the route from a purely technical point-of-view. If necessary, we can make some adjustments during the preparation of the cars.”