Citroën Racing has completed initial testing of the car that will be entered by the brand in the World Rally Championship for the 2017 season. On the gravel roads around the Château de Lastours and then in Fontjoncouse, Kris Meeke has already tested the reliability and performances of this new generation model.
First and foremost, it is worth remembering what a 2017-spec World Rally Car actually is because compared with the models that first appeared in 2011 the change is set to be dramatic, for eyes and ears alike. By becoming 55mm wider, the bodywork enjoys great aerodynamic freedom, with a front bumper fitted with a splitter, prominent air inlets and outlets, a rear diffuser, and so on. It is no accident that comparisons have been made with the legendary Group B cars of the 1980s.
Under the bonnet, the 1.6-litre direct injection turbo engine is now fitted with a 36mm booster flange, like the Citroën C-Elysée WTCC. With some 380bhp under the right-hand pedal, the drivers will be able to savour the power on offer, especially as the minimum regulatory weight has been reduced by 25kg and the four-wheel drive now comes with a central differential that improves traction.
This new generation of World Rally Cars has been designed by the FIA and the manufacturers to give the WRC new impetus. After announcing its return to the category in 2017, Citroën is now determined to play a big part in breathing new life into the WRC, with the aim of winning rallies and adding to its collection of world titles.
The very first outing of the brand’s latest model was held on Saturday, 9 April in Versailles on the small track right next to Citroën Racing’s Satory site. Alexandre Bengué, the team’s test driver, was handed the responsibility of completing the first few miles. The following Monday, Kris Meeke got behind the wheel of the prototype for another shakedown session. As he climbed out of the car at the end of his first run, the Northern Irishman’s wide grin spoke volumes about how much he had enjoyed driving the new car.
Overseen by Laurent Fregosi, Citroën Racing’s new Technical Director, the development team then headed for the south of France for the first proper test session. Engineers Alexis Avril (Project Manager) and Didier Clément (Chief Operating Engineer) didn’t go for the easy option in choosing the roads around Château de Lastours and Fontjoncouse as the base for testing. Regularly used by cross-country rally vehicles, the rocky gravel roads provided a demanding environment in which to test the strength of the chassis, the suspension, the gearbox and the bodywork.
To hide the aerodynamic features as much as possible, Citroën Racing’s latest creation was decorated with a special “camouflage” livery, with a red, white and black pattern created by Citroën’s design team. At 9.12am on Thursday, 14 April, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle began the test programme. Not only did this moment represent an achievement of sorts for the engineers and technicians in charge of designing and building this first version, it also marked the start of a new adventure.
Without ever losing his broad smile, Kris Meeke switched between testing sessions and technical debriefings. Whilst racking up the miles to flush out the inevitable teething problems, he also tried hard to analyse the reactions of the car to changes in the set-up.
On the fourth day, Kris handed over driving responsibilities to Craig Breen. Tasked with analysing the work done using his own experience and feeling, the talented young Abu Dhabi Total WRT driver turned out to be just as enthusiastic about the potential and performances of this new generation World Rally Car.
Back in Versailles, the team now has to go through and analyse the gigabytes of data acquired and prepare the changes that will be made in time for the next test session.