The C3 WRCs Head for Familiar Surroundings
One of the highlights of the WRC season, Rally Argentina is eagerly anticipated by the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT. Ten-time winners in South America, the Red Army is determined to defend its fantastic record with its Citroën C3 WRCs, driven by Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle and Craig Breen/Scott Martin.
RALLY ARGENTINA: SWEPT TO GLORY BY THE CROWDS
Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of fans will take over the sierras of the province of Córdoba. They're prepared to brave the cold to get the best view of the action, as winter approaches in the southern hemisphere. Families and friends get together to set up camp by the roadside. Delicious pieces of meat cook on the asado whilst fans pass the time, listening to the non-stop sports commentary on the radio.
Suddenly, a cloud of dust is kicked up into the sky, causing a huge stir. The WRC slides from one corner to the next as it makes its way through the rocks. The loud cheering and sound of the horns never quite manage to drown out the throaty din of the 380bhp engines. But for three days, the party is in full swing in this country where motorsport is only just behind football in the popularity stakes.
Rally Argentina has a truly unique atmosphere, an event worth experiencing for any true motorsport fan. The 2017 rally promises to be no exception to the rule, with a demanding route for both men and machines alike. After a gentle start on Thursday evening in the streets of Córdoba, the race gets underway on Friday with stages held around Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. The second leg will be even rougher, with two passes on the well-named "Los Gigantes" stage, some 38km in length. Lastly, the crews that make it this far will get to enjoy the breath-taking scenery of Mina Clavero and El Condor on Sunday's final sprint.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
Citroën has won Rally Argentina as a WRC event ten times in the last twelve years. This amazing run says a lot about the expertise of the team, who will have the daunting privilege of defending this record.
However, several factors should prevent anyone from getting too carried away. As in Monte-Carlo, Sweden and Mexico, Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT will only be entering two C3 WRCs. They will be driven by two crews that did not compete here in 2016: Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle and Craig Breen/Scott Martin, who will be making their competitive debuts in South America. This lack of experience will be a genuine disadvantage, since thirteen of the eighteen stages are identical to last year. The only new features are on Tanti – Villa Bustos, contested in the opposite direction, and San Agustin / Villa General Belgrano, which hasn't been on the itinerary since 2008.
Another particularly unpredictable factor is the weather. Anything is possible at this time of year: cold, dry conditions or spring like temperatures, torrential rain and fog. Depending on the conditions, the running order and tyre choice will be more or less significant.
Whatever happens, the Citroën crews will be determined to do well. Winners in Mexico and leaders of the Tour de Corse before suffering a mechanical issue, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle are on something of a positive run. They certainly have good reason to feel positive about Argentina, where they claimed their first WRC win in 2015. After three top-five finishes in as many appearances this season, Craig Breen and Scott Martin will need to get their bearings on this new surface before trying to get close to the leading crews. If they manage to keep out of trouble, they are almost certain to finish high up the standings. The history of Rally Argentina suggests that endurance and consistency are often rewarded.
Yves Matton, Citroën Team Principal: "After a brief interlude on tarmac, we now begin a series of five gravel rallies. Argentina is a special destination for Citroën. We've won this rally ten times and our shared history has been strengthened by the three world titles won by José María López in the WTCC. The popularity of motorsport here is such that Citroën Argentina organises several marketing operations, to showcase our involvement in racing and place particular emphasis on the performances of the team. In line with our goals for this season, we head into this round with the same philosophy. We'll be aiming for first place with Kris Meeke, who, in his two appearances here, has won once (in 2015) and finished on the podium the other time. Craig Breen will have a tougher job. This will be a new experience for him and he may well find it difficult to be among the frontrunners. Having said that, he might just keep up his rapid progress and spring a pleasant surprise."
Laurent Fregosi, Technical Director: "When we got back from the Tour de Corse, we analysed Kris Meeke's car to identify the reason for his retirement. The cause was a broken lubrication system connector, so it wasn't an actual engine issue. Obviously, we studied an alternative solution, which came through with flying colours at our recent pre-event testing. During the five days of testing, we focused on the suspension, which is a very decisive factor in car performance and driver confidence on gravel. Argentina is a tough event, as the loose ground deteriorates between the two passes, exposing large rocks on the road. Combined with the high speeds reached, the impacts subject the chassis and the suspensions systems to considerable stress."
Kris Meeke: "I only have good memories of racing in Argentina: third place on my first appearance and then my first WRC win, which is now two years ago. This rally is also special for its atmosphere and the excitement – some might even call it craziness – of the crowds. As soon as you get off the plane, you can feel that people love motorsport. Even though I didn't compete here last year, I've every reason to feel confident. What with my win in Mexico, the start of the Tour de Corse and the work done in testing this week, I feel good coming into this rally. I'm nonetheless aware of the difficulties of this event, which can be fairly unpredictable."
Number of appearances at the event: 2
Best result: 1st (2015)
Craig Breen: "I can't wait to compete in my very first rally outside Europe. Argentina looks like a fantastic country, with some magnificent stages. I know I'm going to have a lot to learn and I'm aware that it could be a tough weekend for me. It'll be my first event on gravel in the C3 WRC and it's quite a few years now since I last took part in a rally which was completely new to me. I'll be making the most of every kilometre to build up my experience, without thinking about the final outcome. I'll be able to use the work done during this week's test in Portugal: I had a very good feeling in the car."
Number of appearances at the event: 0