Dubbed the ‘Rally of Gods’ by the organisers, the Greek round of the WRC saw Citroën Total World Rally Team reach Elysium with a superb overall result. The Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen crews recorded their third one-two finish of the season to go with those obtained in Mexico and Argentina. Sébastien Loeb and Citroën therefore extend their lead at the top of the World Championships, while Mikko Hirvonen moves into second place in the Drivers’ standings.
After two long days of racing, the final leg of the Acropolis Rally seemed somewhat easier. The 65km of timed stages were split into two loops, interspersed with a thirty-minute stop at the service park. With a mere 10-second advantage over Petter Solberg, Sébastien Loeb flew off on the Aghii Theodori stage, pushing to the max. After a few kilometres, a message appeared on the DS3 WRC’s dashboard informing him that he could ease off a little: “Petter was reported to have come to a halt on the stage, so I stopped pushing so hard. After I passed him, I thought to myself that it would have been difficult to maintain the same pace right to the end, given how many potholes and rocks there were on the road!”
Solberg’s retirement enabled Mikko Hirvonen to move into second position. When he returned to Loutraki, the Finn looked somewhat incredulous at events: “I can hardly believe that I've moved up to second position. I haven't been pushing since midway through yesterday to try and hold onto my position and secure a good overall result for the team. And now it looks like we might finish with a one-two!”
As it had been predicted that this Acropolis Rally would see plenty of unlikely twists and turns, SS20 left the team in a cold sweat. At the second split, Sébastien Loeb was one and a half minutes behind the pace-setter. The no.1 DS3 WRC lost no further time to the end of the stage, at which point Seb confirmed that he had been hit by a puncture: “I don’t know what happened, but I felt that we had a flat tyre after three kilometres. It would have been impossible to make it to the end like that, so we stopped to change the wheel. Everything went well and, in the end, our lead didn’t come under threat.”
The rally concluded with the Power Stage, which was run on the first few kilometres of the Aghii Theodori stage. With the pressure finally off, Sébastien Loeb completed a masterful weekend’s performance on this relatively smooth stage by taking the fastest time and with it, the three bonus points. Third fastest on the Power Stage, Mikko Hirvonen also grabbed an extra point. “We managed this race well, despite the constant pressure we were put under by our rivals,” said Loeb, who now boasts 71 career world championship wins. “I never lost my cool at any point, even when we got a puncture, because I knew we would still have enough of a lead. It is worth highlighting that we were able to count upon the unwavering reliability of the DS3 WRC.”
“Yes, my thoughts are with the technical team when we talk about this one-two finish,” added Mikko Hirvonen. “We had no mechanical problems on either car; that is a truly exceptional achievement on a rally like this one. As far as I’m concerned, I am still surprised to have finished second, but I had to be consistent and not make any mistakes. I am really looking forward to the next two rallies in New Zealand and Finland!”
“When you look at the road surface conditions faced by the cars and the teams on this rally, you can but admire the overall performance of the team,” emphasized Frédéric Banzet, Citroën General Manager. “The DS3 WRCs and the two crews were perfectly reliable. Citroën, Sébastien and Daniel extended their lead in the World Championship, so as we approach the halfway stage of the season, our assessment of the results achieved is very positive. As has been the case in recent rallies, Mikko and Jarmo produced a solid performance, enabling them to move up into second place in the Drivers’ standings. Once again, I’m very proud of the best rallying team in the world.”
The FIA World Rally Championship continues its long series of gravel rallies in Greece. Renowned for its unforgiving route, the Acropolis Rally has over the years become a long sprint for the leading contenders. Both previous winners of the event, the Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen crews will be looking to claim another victory for Citroën Total World Rally Team.
Included in the World Rally Championship calendar since it was created in 1973, the Acropolis Rally has moved with the times. Whereas back then the average speed of the winner didn’t top 70kph, it is now close to 90kph. Increasingly well prepared and able to withstand the demands of what remains an incredibly testing route, the crews and their cars eat up the ground at a cracking pace.
With this in mind, Friday’s leg represents a genuine test of the drivers’ valour. After leaving Loutraki at 6am sharp, the competitors will cover some 170km of stages, not returning to the service park until 9pm. Only two 15-minute remote service periods – during which the cars can only be repaired using the spare parts brought along – will be available to patch up the scars left by the Greek stages.
World Championship leader with three wins obtained in Monte-Carlo, Mexico and Argentina, Sébastien Loeb has achieved two of his seventy career wins in Greece. After winning in the Xsara WRC (2005) and the C4 WRC (2008), the eight-time World Champion would like to complete the series with the DS3 WRC. “It’s a multi-faceted rally: some stages are on very smooth and quick roads. Others, however, are littered with rocks which are not kind to the suspension. Depending on the heat, tyre management can have a major impact on the outcome of the race,” warned Seb. “Often, the time set on a single stage isn’t that significant. You need to look at the result for the entire loop before starting to draw any conclusions. Obviously, I’ll be aiming to win. I had the potential to win in 2011 and I am determined to do so this year!”
Winner here in 2009, Mikko Hirvonen admits he has rather mixed feelings about this event: “It’s not my favourite rally, but I don’t hate it either. We are competing in a World Championship and we must therefore take part in rallies that are varied and representative of all types of surface. The Acropolis Rally is one of the major classics of the WRC and it has not lost its reputation for having the most difficult route. However, you have to say we are driving flat out pretty much the whole time! Obviously, we’ll need to look after the engine and gearbox and the tyres, but I think that a significant part of the outcome is determined during the pre-rally preparatory tests. During these test sessions, you need to make sure the car is sufficiently robust to handle the difficult conditions. As the Citroën DS3 WRCs managed a one-two finish last year, I’m not worried about our ability to challenge for the win.”
Currently third in the World Championship standings, behind Sébastien Loeb and Petter Solberg, Mikko is determined to show he is improving in the coming rounds: “Rally Argentina gave me the chance to take another step forward. I feel totally comfortable in the quick sections. We have done a lot of work with the team and we have made some changes which are more to my liking. I feel very confident about the rest of the season.”
THREE QUESTIONS FOR… YVES MATTON
The Citroën Total World Rally Team achieved a one-two in Argentina after you told Sébastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen to hold their positions. Wasn’t the gap between the two drivers too narrow to do that?
“This kind of decision is never easy to take, but we had to take action to ensure that we achieved the goals that we had set for ourselves, namely to keep the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World titles. After drawing a blank in Portugal, Rally Argentina worked out well for us. Given the lead that our crew had established and the difficulties that still lay ahead, the sensible choice was clearly to ask Seb and Mikko to hold position. Every member of the team, starting with the drivers, knows how important for Citroën to win this titles. Clearly, it may seem particularly tough on Mikko after the way Rally de Portugal ended, but I hope that we’ll see him win his first rally with us in the very near future.”
How would you say the first five rallies of the 2012 season have gone for you?
“The most important point is obviously to lead the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World Championship standings. I don’t think, however, that we can come to any definitive conclusions at this stage of the season. After Monte-Carlo, Sweden and Mexico, we thought that in Portugal we would get a clearer idea of the pecking order between the leading contenders in the Championship. The weather prevented us from seeing a proper contest. In Argentina, our rivals had problems just when our crews began to hit top form. In the end, we still haven’t seen a genuine scrap on a level playing field. I think that we undoubtedly have some stiff competition and I’m certain that we are going to see some very hotly contested rallies in the next few rounds. Although we have established a lead in terms of points, this championship is far from over!”
The way that the WRC is managed has undergone significant changes in recent months. What is your view of the current situation?
“When I was appointed Citroën Racing Team Principal in January of this year, the WRC found itself without a promoter at the same time. The FIA and the organisers of the first few rounds have fulfilled their role to make sure that the rallies have been held in best possible conditions. In comparison with my previous experience of WRC, I am pleased with the working relations between the manufacturers and the FIA. The team led by Michèle Mouton, Jarmo Mähönen and Alexandre Gueschir listens to our concerns. Each side understands the constraints and aspirations of the other stakeholders and we are moving forward in the right direction. The future of our sport will depend both on the heritage of the World Rally Championship and our capacity to move forward with the new technologies both in communications and automotive industry.”
After completing the post-rally technical scrutineering, the Rally de Portugal Stewards were issued with a report from the FIA Technical Delegate which had identified differences in between the homologation sheet and two components on the No. 2 Citroën DS3 WRC.
After receiving representatives from Citroën Racing, the Stewards excluded Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who had finished first.
Xavier Mestelan-Pinon, Citroën Racing Technical Director and Deputy Team Principal: “The scrutineers identified differences in between the homologation sheet and two components: the clutch and the turbocharger. The Citroën DS3 WRCs clutch mechanisms are homologated with lightening holes. Our supplier recently provided us with a batch of parts that were not perforated and one of them was fitted to the no.2 DS3 WRC. These parts don't provide any gain in terms of performance, as they are heavier than those which are homologated. Regarding the turbocharger, which is a standard part on all World Rally Cars, the wheel turbine dimension exceed the maximum authorized. This difference comes from dilatation, as the wheel is subject to extreme temperature and rpm factors.”
Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal: “We had no intention whatsoever to cheat and the decision appears out of proportion. Given the fact that the reported differences didn’t bring us any advantage, we’ve decided to appeal. At the moment, most of all I feel sorry for Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who produced a superb performance on a particularly difficult rally. They really deserved their first win with us. All I can do, on behalf of the entire team, is offer my sincere apologies for this situation. I hope that Mikko and Jarmo will have the chance to top the podium again very soon.”