At first, it’s hard to get your head round it. The world’s greatest living rally driver is lounging on a white leather sofa as Citroën Racing presents its driver line-up for the 2014 season, but he is not – emphatically not – part of the rally team.
Instead, Sébastien Loeb will spend 2014 driving for Citroën’s brand new World Touring Car Championship team, alongside reigning WTCC champion Yvan Muller and José María Lopéz, the Argentine racer who was announced as third driver during yesterday’s launch.
Loeb fancied a change, and having long-since proved himself as a consummate all-rounder, quick at every discipline of motorsport he deigns to turn his hand to, he was more than happy to forge a new path in touring cars with Citroën.
Like Loeb, Citroën finds itself at a divergent point as far as its motorsport projects are concerned, with the main focus starting to turn from rallying to circuit racing. At Monday’s launch of the firm’s 2014 competition plans in Versailles, France, Citroën’s marketing director Arnaud de Lamothe emphasised that the brand sees plenty of worth in all forms of motorsport. “It allows us to be present in significant markets for the brand,” he said.
However, those significant markets are changing. Citroën wants to continue to nurture growth in emerging areas such as China, Russia and South America, all of which feature on the varied WTCC schedule. Hence the big touring car push with the C-Elysée, a saloon that is only offered for sale in selected European markets.
A fourth car will be entered in the Asian races for an as-yet unidentified Chinese competitor in a further bid to boost Citroën’s profile there.
By contrast, the WRC doesn’t visit China or Russia, and ten of the 13 events on next year’s calendar are in Europe. Compared with circuit racing, rallying brings logistical and financial challenges that make expansion into new territories extremely difficult; various attempts to breach China, the Middle East and even North America over the years have withered.
But Citroën is still seeking plenty of publicity and profile from its WRC outfit, even if more of the funding for the team now comes from outside sources, and 2013 was a relatively quiet year in terms of success by its own high standards.
Loeb contested a handful of rallies, which only served to prove that he was still devilishly fast because he won in Monte Carlo and Argentina. Unfortunately, there were few highlights for Citroën away from his star turns; the French team won just once, with Dani Sordo triumphing on the asphalt roads of Germany.
Volkswagen, headed by former Citroën protégé Sébastien Ogier, stole the French team’s place at the top of the championship.
So for 2014 Citroën has opted for a new line-up, with Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke and Norwegian Mads Østberg joining Khalid Al-Qassimi in the three works DS3 WRCs.
It’s a driver line-up that’s as curious as it is exciting. Meeke, at 34, is the older man, but in WRC terms he’s relatively inexperienced, having only contested ten events in top-specification machinery in his entire career. After banging on the door of the WRC for the best part of a decade, it is heart-warming to see his hard work finally pay off with a long-overdue chance in the big league.
Despite being eight years younger than his new team-mate, Øtberg is vastly more experienced at WRC level, having competed oin nearly 60 events in top-spec cars. A consistent points finisher over the past few seasons with M-Sport, he was awarded victory on Rally Portugal in 2012 after Mikko Hirvonen’s Citroën was disqualified for technical irregularities.
Next year stands to be an interesting one for Citroën on two fronts, both of which are laced with large elements of the unknown. Will Meeke bring Britain its first WRC success since Colin McRae won the Safari Rally in 2002? Can Loeb hack it in physical touring car racing?
Curiously, major success in touring cars in races on the other side of the planet, events that will be largely ignored by all but the specialist motorsport media here, could prove to be spectacularly significant to the brand’s long-term viability as a global car company.