Friday, 21 November 2014

New Challenges, Same Results for Citroën

Over the last decade no manufacturer has won more World Rally Championship events than Citroën. Since 2004 the Versailles based team has scored an incredible nine world drivers titles with Sebastien Loeb behind the wheel; the team taking seven constructors titles and 76 of their 93 rally victories in that time - seeing them cement their place as one of the sport's all time great teams.

2014 however saw Citroën embark on a new challenge in the World Touring Car Championship.

In what was their first season in racing, ever, Citroën Racing saw the year very much as 'une année pour apprendre' - a year to learn.

Learn they may have done, but Citroën also did what they do best - win.

The WRC stalwarts embarked on their WTCC project when it was announced on June 13 2013 with sights firmly set on a 2014 début, coinciding with the introduction of the new TC1 regulations.

Following some initial tests with an interim 'laboratory' car based on the DS3 WRC challenger, Citroën revealed the C-Elysée WTCC in July 2013. An extensive testing programme followed with Loeb along with WTCC veteran Yvan Muller behind the wheel.

The substantial testing schedule, which saw the team visit circuits in France, Spain, Italy, Hungary and Abu Dhabi, allowed them to go into 2014 a step ahead of their rivals Honda, LADA and RML Chevrolet who all had to develop their cars while still competing in the 2013 championship - unlike Citroën who were able to focus solely on their 2014 machine.

Testers Loeb and Muller would become the team's first two confirmed drivers, later being joined by one-time USF1 hopeful Jose Maria Lopez as well as Ma Qing Hua in a part time entry to give Citroën an all star driver line up for their first season in the WTCC.

Despite seemingly heading into the season with a head start over the rest of the field, team principal Yves Matton was under no illusions of the task ahead.

"Starting a season is one thing, but starting your first season in a new discipline is something else entirely." He said prior to the WTCC curtain raiser back in April. "Everything is new to us: the cars, of course, but also the equipment, the methods, the regulations, the race strategy..."

While the team may have been heading into a new world, what the rest of us saw was very familiar.

At the first round of the season on the streets of Marrakech, Citroën secured pole position courtesy of Lopez before sweeping the podium and claiming fastest lap in race one.

There was more of the same in race two with contact for Muller the only thing preventing a double podium sweep in their first race weekend.

Loeb's comments after that second race - which he won- served to confirm just how far ahead Citroën were.

"We were dominating" he explained, "our fight was more with our team mates than with other cars".

Marrakech set a precedent for the rest of the season with Citroën going on to win a remarkable 17 out of 23 races, wrapping up the team's title with two race weekends remaining and Lopez clinching the driver's title with one race weekend to go, the team eventually taking the top three positions in the drivers chamiponship.

"It's an amazing feeling" Lopez said upon securing the title, becoming not only Citroën's first WTCC champion, but also the first WTCC champion to hail from Argentina. "It's also an honour to emulate Juan Manuel Fangio as an Argentinian world champion. It's thanks to him that our country is so mad about motorsport".

After winning a record nine word rally titles with Citroën, Sebastien Loeb ended the season in third place. Incredibly this was his lowest world championship standing since finishing the 2002 WRC season in tenth!

“It’s been OK for me. The pace I have in qualifying is good, I’m often fighting with Yvan and Pechito (Lopez), and they are probably the two best drivers in the Championship at the moment, so to be able to fight with them is good." Loeb said to TouringCarTimes at the end of the season. "I miss a little bit of experience on the first lap with the fights between all the cars. It’s difficult for me as these guys sometimes have 20 years of experience, so it’s difficult for me to catch up."

Yvan Muller meanwhile went into 2014 as the reigning WTCC champion and ended the season as runner up.

"Personally speaking, it hasn't been my best season" said the Alsatian. "But I'm pleased with the team result. We began working together 15 months ago and it's a great achievement to win the title."

Despite only running a partial schedule WTCC newcomer Ma Qing Hua still managed a finish the season with a win to his name.

"The guys have done everything they could to make up for my lack of track time" said the Chinese driver, "it’s motivating to feel so supported."

If 2014 proved one thing, it was that nothing is out of reach for Citroën, who also won the inaugural World Rallycross with Petter Solberg behind the wheel of a privately entered Citroën DS3.

In the WRC, Citroen finished best of the rest as runner behind an utterly dominant Volkswagen effort with drivers Mads Østberg and Kris Meeke finishing fifth and seventh respectively in the driver's championship.

In 2015, despite Honda and LADA preparing new cars and the RML Chevrolet expected to be updated, don't be surprised to see Citroën top of the tree in WTCC once again. Meanwhile they'll be hoping that a new homologation DS3 WRC will see them return to the fore of the World Rally Championship which has been swept by Volkswagen since Loeb's departure as as full time driver in the series at the end of the 2012 season.

Northern Irishman Meeke has already been confirmed as part of the WRC team's plans for 2015.

"It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to continue to work together," Kris Meeke told Citroën Racin'g official website. "Since the end of last year, Citroën Racing has given me the chance to prove my worth. This first full season has been spent learning about the WRC. In the second half of the year, I was able to show part of my potential. There’s room for improvement, but I now have some decent foundations to build on next year, in order to keep progressing. With experience, everything becomes that bit easier. I know the team well and we understand each other. I feel like I’m part of the Citroën family!"

The identity of Meeke's 2015 team mate is currently unknown, with 2014 team mate Østberg, former F1 driver Robert Kubica, Hyundai driver Hayden Paddon and 2013 WRC3 champion Sébastien Chardonnet all in the frame to fill the second DS3 seat. The true identity of Meeke's team mate is expected to be revealed in the coming days. Nasser Al-Attiyah is also expected to compete for the team in four events next year.

Citroën's PSA sister company Peugeot also have big plans for 2015.

Two years on from obliterating the record at the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb with non other than Sebastien Loeb behind the wheel, a return to the Dakar Rally on their agenda for the first time in 25 years.

Peugeot will enter three purpose built 2008 DKR cars into the mammoth event with 11-time winner Stephane Peterhansel and 2010 victor Carlos Sainz behind the wheel with Cyril Despres switching from bikes to cars in the third entry.

Although just a one off event and not a season campaign, Peugeot will be expected to win right out of the box, just like Citroën Racing did in WTCC this year, emulating their success of the 1980s and the tough rally raid event.

Come the end of the 2015 season be sure to find Citroën Racing and their Peugeot counterparts to be right at the top of the tables. If they're not at the top, you can bet your house they wont be far off.

Images - Red Bull Content Pool, Citroën Racing, WTCC,

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