A genuine test of all-round ability as the only event on the WRC calendar contested on both gravel and tarmac, round 12 of the 2018 season sees Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena rejoin the ranks of Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT for their third appearance of the year, this time alongside Craig Breen – Scott Martin and Khalid Al Qassimi – Chris Patterson.
As the only mixed surface event of the season, Rally de Catalunya certainly tests the versatility of the drivers and their cars. Drivers must have all-round ability, as they will need to be just as comfortable on gravel during the first leg as on tarmac over the following two days.
With nine-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb joining the team for his third and final appearance of the year, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT look to make a strong case for success this weekend. This is compounded by the fact that Sébastien previously won Rally de Catalunya eight times in a row (2005 – 2012), including three times since 2010 when it became a mixed surface event.
After holding the overall lead during three tests and claiming three stage wins in Mexico on his first appearance in the C3 WRC and then another three on his next outing in Corsica, the French ace will be looking to replicate his strong performance. Despite having not competed here since 2012, Sébastien will be keen to demonstrate he has not lost his legendary speed, with the added help that he will be rallying in the winning car from last year’s event.
Craig Breen, encouraged by a strong display at Wales Rally GB, where he pushed all the way and had his sights on a podium finish for long periods, will also be aiming to make the most of the C3 WRC's qualities. Craig is known for his love of tarmac but will benefit from the minor changes made to the gravel stages, which may compensate for his relative inexperience at this rally.
Starting quite far down the running order (8th and 11th respectively), Craig and Sébastien find themselves at the mercy of the weather. Their starting positions could work in their favour if the ground is dry and the roads clean, as is often the case here. If it rains, however, they will be at a serious disadvantage.
The third driver competing on behalf of the works team, Khalid Al Qassimi, is a big fan of these roads and stages so will be looking forward to an exciting weekend ahead.
TERRA ALTA TRANSFORMED
Although there will be plenty of difficulties throughout the weekend, the majority of them will be familiar to the championship regulars. Aside from the return of the opening super special stage held in the streets of Barcelona on Thursday evening, the main change this year comes on Friday to the former Terra Alta stage.
Renamed La Fatarella – Vilalba, it will be contested in the opposite direction to previous years, with around ten kilometres also added to the test. It retains the thirteen or so kilometres on tarmac that must be contested with gravel tyres, resulting in a stage where the most talented drivers can often open up sizeable gaps to the others in the field.
This rally is unquestionably a genuine test of versatility and skill. Drivers need to look after their tyres and not overwork the front ones, especially for the stages contested on tarmac from Saturday onwards.
WHAT THEY SAID
Pierre Budar, Citroën Racing Team Principal: "Just as in Wales, the aim will be to fight at the front. The weather for the first leg on gravel will have a major influence on our performance, but if we manage to get to the end of Friday well-placed in the overall standings, we know we can count on the potential of the C3 WRC on tarmac to try and reproduce last year's win at this rally. Both Sébastien and Craig can make a strong case for success here: Sébastien has won this event eight times and has already proven this year that he has not lost any of his talent, whilst Craig comes into the rally in good form after a fine performance in Wales."
Sébastien Loeb: "After setting some good times on both surfaces in Mexico and in Corsica, I'd love to get through an entire rally without making any mistakes. My two days of testing went well; it's now up to me to put it all together, from start to finish. The standard is so high that it would be presumptuous to say that I'll be able to challenge the three title contenders, but I hope to be on the pace. If it's dry on day one, then we'll need to make the most of the potential advantage of our road position, because it is often unpredictable on this leg, with hidden, embedded rocks pretty much everywhere."
Number of appearances at the event: 13
Best result: 1st (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012)
Craig Breen: “I’m excited to be racing on tarmac again, which is my favourite surface, especially as there are always a lot of Irish fans who come over for this rally. I'm also pleased that there have been some changes to the first leg on gravel, given that I haven't competed here for two years.”
“For the tarmac leg, I'll be looking to my history in karting to get my bearings quickly on these sweeping, circuit-style roads. I'll need to keep it as clean and tidy as possible. I'll certainly be looking to pick up where I left off in Wales and fight for a podium finish."
Number of appearances at the event: 5
Best result: 6th (2012)
Khalid Al Qassimi: "I'm delighted to be back at this rally. I've always loved racing here, especially the gravel leg, even though it can be tough. Switching from one surface to another during the weekend calls for a good ability to adapt and that's what makes this round such a difficult, but interesting challenge."
Number of appearances at the event: 10
Best result: 7th (2010)
2018 RALLY DE CATALUNYA KEY FIGURES
18 timed stages covering a total of 58 km
1 hour 15 minutes:the time allowed in service on Friday evening for the technical teams to convert the cars from their gravel to tarmac configuration
30 Michelin tyres permitted for the entire rally: 14 "gravel" tyres for Thursday and Friday, selected from 10 medium compound and 14 hard compound tyres, and 16 "tarmac" tyres for Saturday and Sunday, selected from 12 softs, 16 hards and 8 rain tyres.
10 overall wins secured by Citroën at Rally de España: Philippe Bugalski in 1999 (Xsara Kit-Car), Sébastien Loeb in 2005 and 2006 (Xsara WRC), 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 (C4 WRC), 2011 and 2012 (DS3 WRC) and Kris Meeke in 2017 (C3 WRC).
A RALLY, A CHALLENGE
The switch from gravel to tarmac configuration
Each year, Rally de Catalunya provides the WRC mechanics with a service that is even more intense than usual. Extended from its usual length of forty-five minutes to an hour and a quarter, the service on Friday evening sees the mechanics convert their team's cars from gravel to tarmac configuration. Put simply, this means that only the bodyshell and engine remain unchanged. All four shock absorbers, the chassis and suspension systems, the gearbox, the axles, the transmission systems, the brakes and the steering are all replaced.
Time is of the essence so certain things are different; for example, the front and rear axles arrive fully pre-fitted on trolleys. Although this exercise has been in place in Spain for several years now, practice drills are held every season before the rally, so that everyone is fully prepared. This allows the team time to focus calmly on the more traditional aspects of service such as oil, water and brake fluid changes and other checks.
Daniel Elena recalls the first time he and Sébastien Loeb won in Spain, in 2005
"For several years, we had a hard time at this rally. In 2002, we went off, then in 2003 we were caught by Panizzi in the rain because we didn't have the right tyres and in 2004 we broke the crankcase on a corner; that's why our first win in Spain in 2005 was pretty special. At the time, it was our tenth win of the year, which made it a really great season.
It was quite an emotional win, because Michael Park, known as Beef, sadly died that year. He was Markko Märtin's co-driver and a good friend. We hadn't wanted to win the title in such circumstances in Wales, so we deliberately dropped down the standings, eventually securing our second championship at the next round, in Japan. In Catalonia, we then went on to claim another seven consecutive wins. The stages haven't changed that much since then, so I think we only have about sixty or so kilometres of new pace notes to take this year, in addition to any adjustments we already have."