A podium at Rally Sweden14th February 2014
The last time I wrote on these pages I was about to drop the clutch on my DS3 for the Monte Carlo Rally. We’re now two events into the World Rally Championship and it’s been a good start to the year – a fourth-place finish in that first one and now a third in Rally Sweden, my first podium of the year. Here’s hoping for many more…
I also took the Power Stage win in Sweden and my relationship with Citroën is getting better each day that goes by. I’ve always enjoyed Sweden and the last three years I have finished third. In 2011 I went one better and drove the Fiesta RS to second behind Mikko Hirvonen. It was a good result and just goes to show that the Swedish stages suit me – they’re fast and flowing, just how a rally should be.
While this year was another good result for myself and Citroën we did have a few ‘moments’ during the rally! I am sure some of you have seen the news coverage of my incident with Robert Kubica. To be honest I don’t know exactly what happened from his side. He went off the road on one of the stages and then got out, maybe to clear snow from the front of his car or something like that.
When he’d done whatever he was doing, and his co-driver Maciek Szczepaniak was back in the car, he just pulled out, right in front of me. It meant that I was stuck behind him for a bit, which wasn’t great. He should have known I was coming because we have two-minute intervals between cars. If Szczepaniak looked at his watch he would have known I would be on them.
It’s too much of a stretch to say that it would have made the difference between second and third for us (even though the gap was just 5.9 seconds come the end of the rally) because in the final stages Andreas Mikkelsen was making sure he stayed in front of me without taking any risks. He wasn’t pushing as hard as he could and it probably looked closer than it was. These things happen in racing and you just have to hope that the luck swings both ways.
The WRC is undergoing a bit of a rebirth at the moment and it’s something we’re definitely aware of as drivers. The sport is developing quickly, especially with manufacturers involved like Citroën, Volkswagen and Hyundai. The field of cars and drivers is really strong and we should appreciate it because when you look back through the WRC’s history books there haven’t always been that many manufacturers.
There have, of course, been more, but often there have been fewer big-budget efforts and the standard right now is very high. We can feel the competition getting tougher; it’s an interesting time for all of us. Let’s just hope that the championship can build from it.
There’s no doubt that Sébastien Loeb’s dominance over the last 10 years hasn’t helped the figures. Last year Sébastien Ogier was also quite far ahead of everyone. We’re obviously hoping to be close to Ogier this year, though. It’s possible and I think there are actually quite a few people who can challenge him. He was very fast in 2013, and no one was really close enough.
Citroën has consistently been one of the best teams in WRC over the past 10 years and VW being so quick at the moment is not something we’re panicking about. We know we have that sort of performance in us – the engineers, the DS3 and the professionalism within the team is second to none really. We’re developing the car all the time and as each day passes, I’ll be more comfortable inside it.
There is a small generation change in the championship at the moment and there are some new drivers coming onto the scene like Britain’s Elfyn Evans, which is what we want to see. Everyone just needs a bit of time to get used to what Ogier is doing. We have to respond to it and I think we will. There are more who can challenge him now than there were last year.
If I knew exactly what he was doing in the car I’d be doing the same! It’s not as easy as that, sadly. He’s in a very good position because Volkswagen has a good team, it probably has the biggest budget of the championship and he has been a part of building that team.
The car’s been designed around him and it’s similar to what we saw with Loeb and Citroën. All the parts on the car are made to suit Ogier as well as possible and the whole package perhaps makes it a bit easier. Not much, but a little.
That approach is probably happening at Hyundai at the moment as well. They’ve maybe started a year too early, but Thierry Neuville is a very good driver and he’s got the chance to develop the new i20 to how he wants it.
It bodes well that Citroën and I are going well so far when everything is so new, though. The team’s being very supportive and we’re on the right path.
The cars are actually all very similar at the moment and while the Volkswagen is perhaps a little quicker, it’s only a few small things that are making the difference. Being so close does mean that there are only small gaps between us all at the end of a rally. It certainly makes it exciting for the fans and for us inside the cars.
I’m supporting the shorter rallies as I think they’re better like that – they’re closer and there’s more competition. You really don’t want minutes between the top two. Unless, of course, I was in the lead…! Here’s hoping for that scenario come Rally Mexico from March 6-9.
Rally Mexico is a very different event to Sweden, for obvious reasons, but one thing we do all notice as drivers is the altitude. The stages are all very high and we get up to about 2700 metres occasionally. For all you Brits reading, that’s over twice as high as Ben Nevis! Last year Ogier was quickest over the weekend, but we’ll be hoping to change that when the stopwatch starts.