Citroen has endured a horrendous season in the World Rally Championship. After pre-season hopes of challenging for the title, the French team sits rock-bottom in the manufacturers’ championship, 142 points behind the leaders M-Sport.
Much of the blame so far has been directed at lead driver Kris Meeke, but on three events his car reacted badly to bumps in the road in addition to his engine blow up in Corsica.
Citroen must take responsibility for the fact that the car is a nightmare to handle.
A sabbatical was taken in 2016 to focus solely on the design of this year’s car which has fallen well below the standards set by its opposition. Meeke’s testing experience and engineering knowledge also added to the surprise that this year’s car has been so disappointing.
Citroen boss Yves Matton has released limited information on what is actually going on inside the C3. It has only been since the announcement of Meeke’s removal for Rally Poland that the team has given hints that its 2017 World Rally car has inherent issues with its rear suspension.
One of the key changes in the WRC’s 2017 regulations was an opening in the location of suspension points.
With World Rally cars tackling the roughest terrain the world has to offer, optimisation of suspension parts and setup is critical to having a fast car as well as having a car that drivers feel comfortable going fast in.
Citroen has gone with tilted spring-shock absorbers, designed by Citroen Racing to increase suspension travel. This innovation differs from what other teams are running with teams like Hyundai running a more conventional vertical suspension system.
With tilted dampers, Citroen can run the C3 with a lower ride-height making better aerodynamic use of devices such as the diffuser and splitter.
But has this innovation led to some of the team’s problems through the season?
Having less ground clearance has its own risk, especially in rallying.
Reducing the amount of ground clearance increases the probability of damaging parts underneath the car such as the gearbox.
This is a problem Craig Breen knows about all too well. His retirements in Argentina and Italy were both because of damage to his gearbox following heavy impacts and landings through compressions.
Meeke’s off in Rally Mexico and his two crashes in Argentina suggest that the C3 was unable to cope with the uneven road conditions.
In Argentina Meeke’s first off was due to the car reacting badly to a compression. Meeke put his huge crash on the following day down to running wide through the long right-hand corner but if you watch the onboard footage you can clearly see how badly the car reacts to the rut across the road.
The car has been difficult to drive and has left its drivers without any confidence. Breen has been subdued and far from his bubbly self on most of this year’s events. Meeke went as far as calling the car “undriveable” in Sweden.
The drivers can’t risk the car bottoming out or pushing the dampers to their limits in which they seem to rebound aggressively.
Citroen’s extreme approach to the design of its 2017 World Rally car has targeted aerodynamic gains and so far it hasn’t worked. The extremity is shown in the images from the first round in Monte Carlo with the front splitter acting like a snow plough on the winter stages.
In its search of more downforce Citroen’s only reward has been Meeke’s pace on the Tour of Corsica, which went up in smoke after engine failure on day two. Meeke had built a 16 second advantage, with three stage wins, before his engine expired on SS6.
Meeke’s speed in Corsica brings into question another aspect of Citroen’s suspension innovation. Part of its development was to enable different geometry to be used between asphalt and gravel. Perhaps this confirms the fact that Citroen’s gravel suspension design has been a step too far.
Currently, the top two teams in the championship, Hyundai and M-Sport, have the quickest and most reliable car. Yet they both have more conservative packages in how they approached the openings in 2017 regulations.
Even Toyota, who entered the season with many people sceptical of how prepared the team were for an assault on the World Rally Championship, has developed a car that Jari-Matti Latvala feels comfortable in which results in him currently sitting third in the drivers’ championship.
It is said that Citroen’s drivers are seeking to use a conventional suspension setup in search of the feeling that allows them to push on events this season. Talk of complicated French politics won’t solve the C3’s problems. The team must come together and use all of its experience, let’s not forget its dominance in the Loeb years, to go back to a setup that makes the drivers trust the car they are driving.
Citroen is now focusing its efforts on next season’s car. The team must learn from this years’ problems and design a car that can tackle every surface on the WRC calendar.
Images courtesy of Red Bull.