Just a week after the opening round in Marrakech, the FIA WTCC is to make its first ever visit to the Paul Ricard Circuit.
The Citroen C-Elysee WTCCs have already made quite an impression in their first outing in the competition, grabbing the top three places in the first race, and the top two in the second.
Jose-Maria Lopez leads the World Championship standings, one point ahead of Sebastien Loeb. After a troubled start in Marrakech, Yvan Muller lies fifth.
Even when they are not out on the track, the Citroen Racing team are in a race against time. With just four days between the end of the Marrakech meeting and the first free practice sessions at the Paul Ricard Circuit, the team cannot afford to relax. As soon as the trucks arrive at the French circuit – after crossing the Mediterranean by boat and 2500 km on the road – the mechanics will start work on three Citroen C-Elysee WTCC cars, and particularly that of Yvan Muller, which was severely damaged in a collision last Sunday.
“The damage is quite something to behold, but the chassis structure remains intact and we’re going to be able to repair the car in time,” says Citroen Racing’s Technical Director, Xavier Mestelan. “We really want Yvan’s car to be in top shape so that he can compete on equal terms. That doesn’t mean we’ll neglect Pechito and Seb’s cars, though! Despite all the preparatory work we did in testing, we are still in the process of getting to know the car.”
A FIRST FOR THE PAUL RICARD CIRCUITSince it was created in 2005, the FIA WTCC has visited two French venues: Magny-Cours (in 2005 and 2006) and Pau (in 2007 and 2009). This year sees the competition return to France, with its first ever visit to the Paul Ricard Circuit. A relatively short 3.841 km course has been selected out of a wealth of possible options.
Unlike the Marrakech circuit, which comprises a succession of long straight sections and involves a lot of heavy braking, the French circuit contains a number of big, fast corners. The drivers will enjoy taking on Paul Ricard’s trademark combination: the Signes bend, followed by the “Double Droite du Beausset”, the hardest corner on the circuit.
“I think the crowd will see some interesting battles in Le Castellet,” predicts Yvan Muller. “I’ve got happy memories of Paul Ricard, particularly from the Touring Car World Cup. That was back in 1995. I barely dare say the year! It was only my second season in Super Touring, but I finished in fourth place.”
“It’s one of the circuits I know the best, and I hold it in high regard,” adds Sebastien Loeb. “I hope to be in the mix at the French meeting. We’ll see where the real opportunities for overtaking lie. It probably won’t be easy, as the straight sections are relatively short. I think that qualifying will be crucial again.”
Citroen Racing, like some of its competitors, did some testing at Le Castellet in late March. Although the weather could be more spring-like this time around, the knowledge they have acquired of the track can only be beneficial.
LOPEZ LEADS, LOEB IN SECONDAfter a near-perfect weekend in Marrakech, the team and its drivers lead both World Championships. In the Team standings, Citroen is 51 points clear of its nearest rival. Among the drivers, things are closer. With one pole position, one race win and one second-place finish, Jose-Maria Lopez has a total of 48 points, to Sebastien Loeb’s 47. Having had to pull out of the second race in Morocco, Yvan Muller is currently in fifth place with 17 points.
“The way the first weekend of the season went confirmed that we have a group of exceptional drivers,” said Citroen Racing Team Principal, Yves Matton. “I really hope that Yvan will fare better this time and notch up his first win of 2014. We dominated in Marrakech, but we are keeping our feet firmly on the ground. We still have a lot to learn and we know that our rivals will improve quickly.”
THE PROGRAMMEThe weekend kicks off with half an hour of free practice on Friday (12.30 p.m.). Two further practice sessions on the Saturday, at 9 a.m. and 11.30 a.m., will help the teams prepare for qualifying at 3 p.m. Like in Formula 1, the crucial qualifying runs will take place in three stages. Q1 (20 minutes), Q2 (10 minutes, involving only the 12 fastest drivers from Q1) and finally, Q3 (one flying lap for the five quickest drivers from Q2). On the Sunday, race 1 (16 laps) will get underway at 1.15 p.m. Once they have made their required post-race visit to the parc fermé, the teams will have just 15 minutes’ ‘repair time’ before race 2, which will get going at 5.15 p.m.