After nine months of preparations and over 10,000km of testing, the Citroën Racing team can do little more before its debut season in the World Touring Car Championship.
The season gets underway in Morocco, at the Circuit International Automobile Moulay El Hassan – better known as the Marrakech street circuit – and, with the first four rounds of this year's competition taking place over just five weeks, it is clearly a case of 'in at the deep end' for the French marque.
The team at least has experience on its side, with reigning WTCC champion Yvan Muller leading the squad's three Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs alongside multiple WRC champion Sébastien Loeb and touring car veteran José-María López.
Since the car's first outing on 10 July 2013, Citroën Racing has undertaken an intense development programme and, over the last few days, the team has stepped up its efforts even further in the workshops of their technical centre in Versailles. After being assembled, the first three racing cars were put through a 'dress rehearsal' at the Magny-Cours circuit to iron out any glitches.
“Starting a season is one thing, but starting your first season in a new discipline is something else entirely!” managing director Yves Matton commented during the session, “Everything is new to us: the cars, of course, but also the equipment, the methods, the regulations, the race strategy…
“Every member of Citroën Racing has invested a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm to ensure that we are ready when the time comes. Of course, we would have liked to have had a few more days to prepare, but we can't wait to get to Marrakech. It will be the culmination of over a year's work. Our challenge now is to develop the essential reflexes we need in order to be strong performers in WTCC. We will be looking closely at our first times to see where we stand in relation to the competition.”
Marrakech will be a first for both Loeb and López as they tackle the quirky street circuit for the first time.
“Generally, I'm quite comfortable on street circuits, like Pau, Baku or Monaco,” the Frenchman acknowledged, “but I haven't had time to get to know Marrakech… and that won't be the only new thing I have to get to grips with in the next few days!
“Even after a full season in GT, I'm still dreading the starts. It's often very tricky when you're trying to avoid dropping places on the first few corners. At the moment, the one thing I am sure about is the car. I know that we have done some good work on it and I've got a good feeling at the wheel. We may have got a head start on the competition in terms of development, but we also have less room for improvement than the teams that have only started their testing in the last few weeks. Like everyone, I'm feeling really motivated for the start of the season.”
Lopez, meanwhile, is looking forward to going racing after months of development.
“Testing is a really interesting part of our preparation, but I am glad to be going into the first meeting,” 'Pechito' confirmed, “We'll get out on the track with our rivals and finally see if the work we have done pays off.
“I've already raced on quite a few street circuits, as we've got a few in Argentina. It's not my favourite style of race, but I think it's a really positive thing to bring motorsport closer to the people. The circuit seems quite unusual, with high-speed chicanes and steep rumble strips, but we'll see exactly what it's like when we come to drive on it. The start of a season is always a special time, and this excitement is shared by the whole team. We are competitors, and we all want to make a good start and leave Marrakech in a good position in the championship!”
Used exclusively by the WTCC since 2009, the Moulay El Hassan circuit takes in the wide boulevards on the outskirts of Marrakech. At first glance, the circuit appears relatively straightforward: it consists mainly of straight sections, punctuated by chicanes.
“Appearances can be deceptive,” noted Muller, the only Citroën Racing driver to have raced in Morocco before, “In reality, it's a very difficult circuit. Because it's not a permanent track, the surface is very slippery at the start of a meeting, and the key to a fast lap lies in how you tackle the rumble strips. You have to climb over them, or sometimes jump them, while making sure not to end up in the wall, of course! Obviously, we've worked on this in testing, but we will have to wait to be out on the track to get a clearer idea of what to do.”
With a very busy start to the season in prospect, the quadruple WTCC champion also thinks that starting the WTCC adventure on a street circuit will be particularly challenging.
“Only a week after Marrakech, we'll be at Paul Ricard for the second round,” he pointed out, “Even if all goes well, the mechanics won't have a lot of time to get the cars ready. If there's a lot of damage, things will be even tougher for them. That adds a little extra pressure.”