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GP Week : Issue 143
43 WRC FEATURE >> At a strange and select press conference at Versailles, at which Citroen confirmed rumours that the long-time Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen will replace Sebastien Ogier as team driver in 2012, Citroen Racing Director Olivier Quesnel had the chance to reflect on Citroen’s decision to end Ogier’s contract prematurely. With the high tensions within the team in 2011, the amazing situation evolved in which Ogier was able to win five rounds of the world championship, like the world champion, and still only end up third in the series, and then be dismissed from the team. 2011 had been a year full of disquiet for Citroen Racing. Did Sebastien Ogier have the chance to continue in the team in 2012? Wasn’t this a dramatic and exaggerated replay of 2005 when Francois Duval won the final round and then found there was no place for him in the team for the next year? GPWEEK: What happened with Sebastien Ogier? OLIVIER QUESNEL: As I said in the press conference, Citroen Racing told him he was free to go. That means exactly what it says. Do you feel that Sebastien Ogier did anything wrong when he was in the team? For me, all I can say is that Ogier did a mistake in Germany. He had no reason to say what he did (accusing Citroen management of favouring Loeb at his expense, and thereby appearing to break the equal-driver agreement). I know he is young, and that this sort of thing happens. At the end (we cannot deny) he got five victories this year, like Loeb. We are saying goodbye to Ogier with happy memories.” What qualities do you find special about Mikko (Hirvonen)? As you can see when you look back over the last three years, he earns world championship points every time. Which helps a team working for the manufacturers’ title.” You have stated that Sebastien Loeb will be the leader in the challenge for the Drivers’ title in 2012. Does this mean that Sebastien Loeb reverts to being number one driver for 2012 and that Mikko Hirvonen will be number two? Loeb has now been the world champion eight times. This is not the same for Mikko. In another dimension Mikko is very fast, very strong, does not normally go off the road. So if you look at all Mikko’s qualities you will see that the pairing of Loeb and Hirvonen will be a good deal for Citroen Racing. You have spoken earlier about the difficulties agreeing team hierarchy between the two Sebastiens in 2011. Has there been a difficulty in this respect for 2012? You have to remember that at the start of 2011 Loeb was supposed to stop at the end of the year. At that time Ogier had a really good proposal from Ford to consider. We needed Ogier to stay with us in case Loeb stopped. Ogier agreed to stay with us, with less money than what Ford were offering, but only if he had equal status with Loeb. Then when we got to Sardinia (round 5 in the season), Loeb said he wanted to continue. It is not the same situation this time at all. Sebastien Loeb was saying today that more was made about the driver rivalry outside the team than there was in reality inside the team. I completely agree with that. What was happening in our team was not what we were reading in the newspapers.” How relevant to the problems at Citroen were the road cleaning (“balayage”) and running order issues? The biggest problem in 2011 was the running order rule, which created the problems of road cleaning. Everybody knows I have been against the running order system used in 2011 because it leads to problems with the road cleaning. Earlier in the season I thought the FIA might change the rule (and go back mid-season to reverse order running) which would mean the problem would disappear, but Malcolm Wilson did not agree. As we were not unanimous, the FIA kept the situation as it was. Had the cleaning problem not existed this year, it would have been very much easier. Was 2011 the most challenging season of your career with Citroen’s world championship team? 2009 was even more complicated. Even after five straight victories at the start of the season, Loeb was only able to win by one point from Hirvonen after winning the last two rallies in the season and was only champion on the last day of the season. In 2011 until we got to Germany it had been OK, but then we went to Australia where there was a crash, but that was something which can always happen. Then we had France, where it was logical that Sebastien Loeb should have got 25 points again, but then there was the engine problem. This year the uncertainty for the championship was limited just to the final two events (Spain and Wales). Loeb had to win in Spain and then Mikko retired this year in Wales early on in the event. NOTE: The press conference ended with as many outstanding questions as questions answered. One of these questions concerned the future of Olivier Quesnel himself, following widespread speculation that he himself was about to leave his position, about which nothing was said at the press conference ... The first year of Michelin as the primary supplier of tyres to the WRC ended at Wales Rally GB, a event which was unseasonably warm for November, but after three years of Pirelli supply it has been impossible to make a direct comparison how they compared. “Over the season the performance of the Michelins has been different to those of Pirelli” said George Black, M-Sport’s tyre adviser, who noted that the traditional thin film of mud on the hard base surfaces was again causing the drivers to complain as usual about their tyres! “Over the years we have tried various compounds and cuts which might work in these peculiar conditions but there is no magic solution to the conditions found each year on this event. One important difference on the WRGB, however, was that the Pirelli tyres always had two millimetres more tread depth, which in highly slimy conditions could give you more mechanical grip.” An important factor on Wales Rally GB was that the alternative tyre supplier DMack was able to produce a joker tread pattern for this event, which Michelin could not. For this event the DMack tyre was modified just like the teams used to do for this event – in the old days when rules permit hand cutting a standard Michelin Z or a standard Pirelli K, the trick was cutting the tread very open and also placing a radial groove line round the middle. Using the memory of the solution, DMack produced a purpose- built Rally GB tyre! Black said that Dick Cormack’s company made a very good job with their special tyre for this event and helped Ott Tanak finish sixth. Michelin are advanced with work for 2012, already testing a new construction for tarmac use, following the puncture problems which cropped up in Germany this year: “Under their tender contract terms they are allowed to design new tyres for next year. And anyway, the tyre supply tender also provides that a new extra type of tyre would be necessary for Monte Carlo, and it would have to be 18 inch. The old “maxi snow” 16 inch tyres have not been available for the last five years or so. I think the Michelin gravel tyre will be basically the same as this year. The big question now is to work out the quantities involved for each compound type, how many snow versions, studded snow versions and so on.” Tyre rules for 2012 are not yet finally settled. Whether there will be fewer tyre changing points than this year is going to be a critical issue, considering that a lot of the events are expected to have longer competitive distances. Then again, when tyre requirements have to be defined, there are extra circumstances like events moving from one date to another date in the calendar, which changes the tyre requirement for the Rally GB, for example, by moving in 2012 to September. Tracks in Wales in September in late summer can be as hard and abrasive as Greece! The FIA are planning a clamp-down on mixed surfaces in 2012, but that is not expected to make a big difference to tyre design, though it will make it easier for the drivers: “ They do not like driving tarmac stages on gravel tyres – and gravel stages on tarmac tyres even less so. A lot of lessons have been learned from Argentine 2011 where you had to run soft gravel tyres on abrasive tarmac which ended up with effectively slick tyres. That was crazy. It was the mistake to run these stages in Argentina which prompted the clampdown on mixed surface stages.” One Year of Michelin