Sébastien Loeb has sought to downplay the rift that opened up between himself and Citroën Total World Rally Team team-mate and namesake Sébastien Ogier on Rallye Deutschland last month – stressing that the atmosphere between the pair inside the team 'hasn't really changed'.
Ogier risked the censure of Citroën bosses by publicly speaking out in Germany against the team orders that were employed in a bid to engineer a Loeb victory on the event – although a puncture for the multiple World Rally Champion ultimately rendered the debate null-and-void in any case as the younger of the two Frenchmen sped on to tally his fourth victory of the 2011 WRC campaign. Loeb insists team harmony has not been destabilised.
“It hasn't really changed,” he underlined, batting off questions about whether he and Ogier would be permitted to truly battle it out Down Under this weekend. “We work together and we are doing our best. We work in all aspects together and nothing's changed. I think we will start to fight with Ford first, and we should be more worried about their drivers. I think that maybe we will not be in the easiest position at the end of the weekend...”
Indeed, whilst the 37-year-old is a previous winner on Rally Australia – back in 2004 – in the two most recent editions of the event, it has been a Ford benefit, and the Blue Oval needs
to win this time around to get its season back on-track and keep Mikko Hirvonen's fading title hopes alive. With a 25-point advantage over his nearest pursuer in the drivers' standings, Loeb, by contrast, does not.
What's more, should the cards fall his and Ogier's way in Oz, it is conceivable – albeit unlikely – that Citroën could just clinch the 2011 manufacturers' crown on Sunday, but for now and given the unknown that all of the competitors will face around the new Coffs Harbour-based route, Loeb is playing it cool.
“Sure, it's always more difficult when it's a new rally,” he concedes. “You must be more concentrated on the recce with the notes. The stages are quite wide and fast; some have narrow bits, but they are generally quite fast. The second leg is looking very similar to New Zealand, the first and third similar to Australia in previous years.
“The first day is not the worst. There are some loose [gravel] parts, but some [stages] are generally quite clean. It depends on the weather as well, as we have heard about rain. It's important to find the right rhythm. In my position, being first-on-the-road, it is not always easy but we will see.
“It's like every rally – you go into [it] wanting to score good points. We have three long days to go, so we will concentrate on the rally. It's not crucial to win, but it's important to push and fight and score manufacturer points.”