ANOTHER MEDITERRANEAN CAMPAIGN FOR PEUGEOT
22 September 2004
The WRC continues to break with tradition and, coming immediately after a Rally GB organised in summer, the calendar turns to yet another brand new round in October, the Rallye d’ Italia, in Sardinia. Harri Rovanperä, who came 6th in Wales, has previous experience of the Italian event after winning it last year prior to its inclusion in the World Championship, although the actual route was very different twelve months ago. The Finn will be out for a top result on the Mediterranean island, as will Marcus Grönholm who will be looking to obtain the sort of success that has escaped him in recent outings.
After a somewhat rainy Wales Rally GB, the 2004 championship returns to the shores of the Mediterranean which should provide the series with a pleasant, end-of-summer feel. The WRC teams conducted a long campaign in this part of the world last spring when they visited Cyprus, Greece and Turkey in quick succession, but Sardinia stands to be something of a new style event, with nothing whatsoever in common with the asphalt of San Remo, Italy’s former WRC qualifier.
The all-gravel newcomer will be based in the celebrated luxury resort of Porto Cervo, while the stages are located further to the south with a central service park in Olbia. In terms of size, Sardinia is the Mediterranean’s second biggest island and also the third biggest region of the Italian Republic. It boasts a fine history in rallying too: before its inclusion in the world series, the ‘Supermag Rallye d’Italia Sardinia’ was already an established fixture under the more evocative name of ‘Rallye Costa Smeralda’. Many of the sport’s star names, including Markko Alen, Henri Toivonen, Miki Biasion and Juha Kankkunen, have triumphed in this former Italian classic and Harri Rovanperä was the most recent professional driver to add his name to the list of past winners, in 2003.
“I obviously have a fond recollection of this event, especially since the atmosphere with the spectators, as is often the case in Italy, was very nice,” says Rovanperä. “My knowledge of the stages won’t give me much of an advantage, however, since only 12km of the 2004 event were used last year! But if the character of the rally is the same as last year, it promises to be a fast, narrow and very technically demanding. So it’s going to be quite difficult. The team has worked hard to prepare for this event. I hope we will be able to benefit from that because it’s true that success has tended to elude us in recent rallies.”
Marcus Grönholm agrees that the stages stand to be highly selective: “I had the opportunity to test in the region where the rally is held. On the whole, the tracks seem to be faster than those of Cyprus and Turkey. They are more reminiscent of Portugal or Argentina. I quite like this type of road and I believe we have a good chance. The only question mark concerns the surface. The test stage we used was fairly soft and the roads could cut up after the first pass.”
Interview Nicola Gullino : The man with the conductor’s baton
Before being appointed as team manager at Peugeot Sport, Nicola Gullino – better known to his friends as ‘Nick’ – had tried his hand at everything to do with rallying, or nearly. We caught up with him prior to Italy’s round of the World Rally Championship in Sardinia.
How did you first become involved in rallying?
“I started off as a photographer at the age of about fifteen or sixteen before turning to co-driving for about ten years until 1993. During the same period I was a student and eventually worked as an architect, and then as a university professor before it was no longer possible to put off having to do national service. For that, I volunteered for the first Gulf War. When I got back from that, I found myself at something of a loss but then I met the Tabaton family who wanted to build up their rally operation, Grifone. I was taken on for a test period and ended up staying with them for around ten years…”
How long did it take you to become a team manager?
“I learnt step by step, at the time as the operation progressed over the years to become the biggest private team involved in the WRC. After joining them in 1995, I was able to get first hand experience of practically all the rallies that counted towards the championship. I was basically a sort of Mr. Fix-it, a job that covered many things, from logistics to commercial work. I also worked very closely with the drivers which meant I was able to work with nearly all those who are currently at the top of the sport today. For example, we obtained 3rd place finishes on two occasions with Harri Rovanperä against the factory cars, in Portugal and Finland. I also ran Marcus Grönholm in 1995 at the time of his debut as a semi-works driver…”
What does your role at Peugeot Sport involve today?
“When Jean-Pierre Nicolas asked me to move to Vélizy last year, he told me that he needed an orchestra conductor! And Peugeot Sport was a big orchestra made up of a large number of top professionals in their field. My role was to get all these virtuosos playing in unison. I was helped by the fact that the team already had a good coordinator in the person of Vincent Laverne. My duties also include looking after the schedules of the drivers, from PR operations to their travel arrangements to test sessions. The fact that I worked closely with them in their early days means I enjoy a special relationship with them today. It often only takes a nod of the head for us to understand each other and this sort of close complicity can be a help at times when their morale perhaps needs a bit of a boost.”
You joined an existing, closely bonded squad. How is your relationship with the team?
“First class. I have never been considered as someone just brought in from the outside. Rallying is a small community and I had already had the opportunity to work with the likes of Michel Nandan and Emilie le Fur when they looked after the Peugeot crews run by Grifone with the 206 WRC and other cars. The trickiest thing was getting to know everyone because it’s such a big team. I’m personally learning all the time thanks to the people I work with, wherever they fit in in the hierarchy. My role is to listen to their needs and ideas and that is very rewarding. It’s easier to think when you’ve got a number of brains on the case. The fact that the atmosphere is still very positive despite the set-backs we have been through this season is indicative of the quality of the human side of the team…”
The numerous regulation changes that have been introduced this season have not made life easy for you…
“True, it hasn’t been a luxury having two people working on this side – namely Vincent Laverne and myself – to solve some of the problems raised. We work very closely together and dovetail each other well. Vincent knows the regulations inside out and has an amazing ability to concentrate which allows me to cover other things, such as liaising with the drivers, negotiating with FIA bodies, etc. We are quite proud of the contribution we have made together to bring more logical regulations to the sport. We have pushed hard in this sense and I hope our work will bear fruit. The toughest thing is in fact keeping the momentum going with the current calendar of sixteen rallies. It would clearly be easier for us to run three drivers on fewer events.”
What is the most frustrating and most satisfying aspect of life as a rally team manager?
“What we’ve been through this season has been difficult. We know we have the potential to win and we regularly find ourselves in the lead yet we don’t succeed in getting the sort of results we believe we deserve. The most frustrating thing was of course being deprived of our victory in Cyprus after winning on the stages. But when the end result does reflect the effort everyone is putting in, you feel really proud for Peugeot’s 160,000 employees, and that’s really the most satisfying thing.”
Your work in rallying has already taken you to Sardinia in the past. What is your opinion of this event which is a newcomer to the sport at world level?
“I have actually competed in the Costa Smeralda Rally in the past as a co-driver. I have also worked as team manager there, including last year with Harri Rovanperä when he won with the 206 WRC. I have tried to pass on what I know about the event to the team, but there’s really not all that much to say. The 2004 route features a large number of stages that are new, or practically new, and they’re located on private property which means they’re not easy to access outside of the rally. This year’s event includes a little less than 10% of last year’s route. But it’s a very beautiful part of the world and the stages remind me a bit of the Fafe region in Portugal with a covering of sandy gravel on a harder base. The photographers will doubtlessly enjoy it, as will the drivers who will appreciate the smooth stages.”
RALLY ITALY BRIEF
1st Rally Italia Sardinia
13th Round of FIA World Championship 2004
Scruteenering : Wednesday 29th September 2004 – 14.00 / 18.00 – Olbia – Parc d’Assistance
Shakedown : Thursday 30th September 2004 – 9.00 / 12.00 – Monte Pino (Olbia)
Ceremonial start : Thursday 30th September 2004 – 20.00 – Porto Cervo – Marina Vecchia
LEG 1 : Olbia / Porto Cervo
Friday 1st October 2004 : 08.30 – 19.15
6 Special Stages (158.6 km)
LEG 2 : Porto Cervo / Olbia / Porto Cervo
Saturday 2nd October 2004 : 06.30 – 20.00
7 Special Stages (148 km)
LEG 3 : Porto Cervo / Olbia / Porto Cervo
Sunday 3rd October 2004 : 07.00 – 16.45
6 Special Stages (77.7 km)
Total Distance : 1.229 km – 19 Special Stages (384.2 km)