Citroen and Loeb/Elena out to defend their titles
The Rally Ireland, which first counted towards the WRC in 2007, not only returns to the calendar this year but also has the privilege of kicking off the 2009 championship. The route extends from the mountains of Sligo to the lakes of Fermanagh, with stages in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The region’s fast yet narrow are famed for being very bumpy, but the terrain clearly suits the Citroën C4 WRC, since Sébastien Loeb and Dani Sordo came first and second on the 2007 event.

Even so, the Citroën Total WRT goes into this year’s encounter in the knowledge that nothing can be taken for granted. Didier Clément, the Operations Manager in charge of the C4 WRCs on events, underlines the two key features of this season’s curtain-raiser: "First of all, we will need to keep a close eye on the weather which promises to be variable and wet! And with temperatures potentially close to freezing point, ice and snow cannot be ruled out either. The main new parameter concerns the Pirelli tyres we will have for this unique situation, since crews will be able to choose between two products, the soft compound PZero patterned tyre and the non-studded Sotto Zero snow tyre. A test session in Ireland enabled us to fine-tune the C4 WRC’s set-up and also evaluate the performance of both types of tyre in the different conditions we are likely to encounter. We have prepared well, but nothing can ever replace actually competing to find out where you really stand."

Although the cars don’t feature any major technical evolutions, a new system has been introduced with a view to enhancing crew safety. "The doors are now filled with high density foam aimed at absorbing impact energy in an accident. As a result, it is not possible to open the side windows which are now made from polycarbonate. This step forward was possible thanks to close collaboration between the FIA and the manufacturers," explains Didier Clément.

Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, who won the Rally Ireland in 2007, are glad to be contesting the event once again. "The first time we came here, the conditions were rather delicate, but everything went well for us and the result proved decisive in our bid to win a fourth world title," recalls Seb. "This year’s championship kicks off with four rounds that weren’t on last year’s calendar, but they are not new territory because we did them all in 2007. And our objective hasn’t changed either: after notching up five consecutive world titles, we are obviously aiming for a sixth crown! It’s going to be an interesting season and I expect it to be very close. Mikko Hirvonen is improving all the time, while Jari-Matti Latvala has really come on, too. There are the other C4 WRC drivers as well, of course, starting with my own team-mate, Dani, and also Chris Atkinson."

The Frenchman, who has scored 47 world class wins in the course of his career, expects the conditions to be particularly tricky in Ireland: "The event has everything it takes to be a tough rally. Pre-event testing has enabled us to optimise the stability of our C4 WRC. Dani feels the same way, but it’s only on the stages that we will really be able to see how effective our work has been."

Despite the brevity of the winter break, Dani Sordo is eager to get back behind the wheel competitively: "As in previous years, the season begins on asphalt and that’s a good thing. I like the Irish stages, but the weather promises to make this year’s event difficult. OK, we will be able to choose between two types of tyre, but the Sotto Zero will only come into its own if it really snows. I have prepared hard for this rally, with a daily fitness training programme, plus some very fruitful testing."

After securing the bronze medal in the 2008 World Championship, the Spaniard has his sights set high for this season: "To begin with, I will be out to score as many Manufacturers’ points as possible for Citroën. I finished third in last year’s Drivers’ standings and I would like to do at least as well this time round. And why not one step higher? I would also like to score my first WRC win this year."

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