Christian Loriaux, the man responsible for Ford's rally cars these days, is not one for mincing his words. So when he gets around to explaining why the machines at the heart of the sport's new era are all the better for being tougher to drive, he doesn't hold back from accusing the top World Rally Championship racers of being a bit, well, soft.
“Look at it this way,” he opines. “Previously, at the start of a special stage, the driver pushed a button that operated the clutch and the launch control. Now it's down to the guy behind the wheel to judge traction, the operation of the clutch and the manual gear change in order to leave the start.
“It means they have more to do, and that's a good thing. If a driver wants to be World Champion, then he needs to be capable of moving the car from a standing start without technology doing it for him.”
Ouch. But a good point, well made.
World rallying, you see, has been spoiling its stars – and, you could argue, its own core values – through technology for the best part of a decade. Sure, the basic principle has stayed the same – 2.0 liters, turbocharging and four-wheel drive – but elements like electronics, transmissions and suspension have leaped forward. Speeds have improved; the spectacle has not. This trend should end now, though, because in 2011 teams and drivers will have to cope with the biggest technical shake-up since World Rally Cars revolutionized the sport in 1997.
Gone are cars like the Focus and C4, replaced by smaller models – Ford Fiesta (which won the opening round in Sweden in the hands of Mikko Hirvonen (LEFT), Citroen DS3 and, on a part-time basis this year ahead of a full campaign in 2012, Mini Countryman. The engine size falls from 2.0 liters to 1.6. There's a smaller air restrictor to reduce power and, in particular, torque. Sophisticated “active” center differentials are banned, as are trick paddle-shift gearboxes (there's a mechanically linked sequential shifter instead). Specified common parts will make it harder for anyone to gain a real technical advantage.
The sum total of all this, the groundswell of opinion suggests, is a lineup of machines that will need to be pushed harder, and closer to the edge, than any rally cars we've seen for 20 years. They could even go sideways once in a while.
Take the view of Sebastien Loeb, seven times a champion, the dominant driver of the 2.0-liter World Rally Car era and the man whose neat, precise driving style revolutionized the sport: “The DS3 reacts quicker than our older car [the C4],” he says. “It's shorter and feels lighter to drive, more reactive. That's good in some cases, such as on twisty gravel roads, but on a fast, flowing stage where grip levels are changing, it's more nervous. You have to fight more, basically.”
It's fun, though, right? “Yes, for sure.”
Ford's Mikko Hirvonen agrees. “The biggest difference is really the engine,” he says. “There's less torque, so you need to keep the motor at higher revs and that demands a different driving style. You need a more aggressive approach, especially in slower corners, where you need to take command and attack, rather than letting the car do the work.”