Rally Sweden was another subpar performance for the boys in red, two rallies in and Citroen has only 1 from a total 32 stage wins. So, it has to be asked, is the new C3 the weak link?
It’s the start of stage 17, the atmosphere is calm. Meeke drops clutch and heads into the stage seemingly level headed and ice cool. The first few corners are without drama, a calm collected Meeke working the wheel, pitching the car into corners with left foot braking trickery, only the rhythmic precise pace note calls of Paul Nagle punctuating above the C3’s straight cut sequential gearbox.
The first sign of trouble becomes apparent as Meeke lets out a plethora of F words and cursing as the C3 suddenly steps out of line mid corner. Worse was to come, around 4 minutes into the stage the C3 fails to make a left right transition, Meeke bursts out in rage “F**K ME” bellows the Northern Irishman as his WRC machine thumps nose first into a snow bank.
But the dramas still aren’t over, another 3 minutes later this time at full chat in 6th gear the C3’s rear end lets go without warning mid corner. Meeke’s response is predictable “AHHHH, NO WAY”, Meeke barks “I’m not f**king driving this” fills the intercom as Meeke puts the Citroen in road mode and navigates the rest of the stage at recce pace.
This WRC+ onboard of SS17 is perhaps the best insight at the unfolding crisis at Citroen. The C3 has failed to make an impact (in positive terms) out on the stages and one of the most successful WRC teams in modern history may well be lumbered with a deficient WRC steed.
And there is the million pound question- is it Setup woes or fundamental design error?
Take the situation at face value, a car that provokes Meeke into a genetically volatile rage implies that the C3 is fundamentally imbalanced and easily overdriven. Compared to the rest of the WRC machinery, The C3 looks overly twitchy and tail happy with far more steering input required.
In fact even the humble and witty Craig Breen was left flustered and irritable at many stop controls. A reoccurring comment at stage end from both C3 pilots was “we have work to do”. That isn’t a positive comment considering Citroen racing took a whole year out of the sport in 2016 to solely work on the C3 project.
Walk past the front of Citroens new challenger, and the C3 even looks a little beady eyed and evil, ‘The Hood’ from Thunderbirds instantly springs to mind. But is it really possible Citroen has built an unstable widow maker of a car?
There is unfortunately a light sprinkling of rumours and theories that the C3 is indeed a misguided interpretation of the new regulations. The Citroen has a distinct lack of ‘Volume’ aero on the arches; take a look at the Gazoo Toyota for reference. It also seems to be the only car that hasn’t stayed with boxy, flat top arches the rest of the WRC field uses. Some people suggest it’s the C3’s less imaginative use of aero and wheel arch extrusion that hinders the cars high speed stability. But then again, Citroen completed early testing of the C3 equipped with wider, squared of flared arches. So surly Citroen believes the newer development is an improvement?
What’s more there is the rather grey question of safely. Trawling the onboard footage clearly shows the car over rotating, the back end snapping out violently pitching car towards the apex, and thus spectators. Make no mistake this is the fastest the WRC has ever been, and there is no place for a car that is inherently unstable and overly tricky to drive.
Also Is the C3 a good base for WRC car? Arguably Hyundai had the best car to build on in the shape of the i20 coupe, the lowest car in the paddock with seemingly the best proportions and strongest shell. Remember the Mini Countryman WRC? Meeke and Sordo had to drive like hell just to remain competitive. There are stark comparisons between the two machines; both are longer in the wheelbase department and, in the Mini’s case, made it more cumbersome in the tight and twisty sections.
Perhaps Citroens misfortunes are a combination of bad luck and incorrect setup. 2017 beckons the return of the active centre diff, and it may well be Citroen only needs a rapid rethink on diff mapping and settings to try and rein in the C3’s tendency to overseer. Hayden Paddon for instance was struggling in Sweden with his I20’s centre diff settings.
Also there could be an equally innocent explanation for the C3’s lack of speed. The combination of the Citroens narrower track and longer wheelbase means the tyres may not be in the ruts of the other 2017 spec cars 100% of the time. Could this explain some of the C3’s common complaints of lack of grip?
But even when you add it all up, it seems unfathomable Citroen of all WRC teams have made a fundamental engineering blunder. Look at Meeke’s development record- he had direct input for the Xsara, C4 and ds3. All of which served under the commanding reign of Sebastian Loeb. It therefore seems almost comical to suggest the C3 is a blunt instrument in the WRC service park.
What can be taken for certain is that if the C3 fails to grab a podium in the coming rounds, Citroen racing boss Yves Matton will be dragged to the office of company CEO Linda Jackson and thrown to the floor in shame. The Guys and Girls in the Versailles engineering department have a lot of sleepless nights ahead…