A brief look at Citroëns most recent rally history following the news that they won't be back in 2020.
Since 2001 we've seen an official Citroën team fielding cars in the RC1 class (Class for the World Rally Cars) of the WRC for every single season, sadly in 2020 this won't be the case any more. I won't discuss the reason(s) for their withdrawl here, instead I'd like to focus on Citroëns most recent rallying history and celebrate both their success and strong commitment to the sport.
Very few manufacturers can boast with such a long uninterrupted spell at the top of the sport and even fewer can rival the success they had. Yet Citroën never seemed to be a fan favourit, especially casual followers of the sport seemed to be uninterested. Part of the reason could be that Citroën as an innovative and qurkiy manufacturer doesn't lend itself to mass popularity, simultaniasly they never really tried to capitalise on their sporting success via producing sportive road cars. Despite their long involvment in rallying that goes all the way back to the beginning of the sport as we know it today, their brand DNA stayed focused on comfort and avant garde. And last but not least, while success makes you popular, oppressing success will do the opposite.
That they never got the applause they deserved for their innvolvment and success is a great shame in my opinion. After all, they stuck with the sport in its darkest time, when everyone else pulled out of the WRC. They arguably kept the championship alive (togehter with Ford wich was run as a satalite operation via M-Sport). Furthermore they helped promising youngsters on their way to the top. Sebastian Loeb, Dani Sordo, Kris Meeke, Sebastian Ogier and Thierry Neville all drove for the Citroën Junior Team and/or drove in the Junior categories on Citroëns. Wich brings me on to the next point. Since more than 20 years, Citroën supplied customers with competitive rally cars for pretty much all classes. Be it S1600, R1, R2, R3, R5 or the short lived RRC/S2000T class, even World Rally Cars were sold to private teams. It's allways a good sign when a manufacturer embraces a sport on different levels and doesn't just enter at the top.
But what about their success?
Well, they won 8 manufacutrer titles, 9 drivers titles and 102 rallies. Impressive stats, record braking even, but a quick overlook at the program that led to this success is much more interesting than the statistics.
It started in 1998 when the Xsara Kit Cars (2 litre NA, FWD, liberal regulations) were entered in the WRC for the first time as works cars. The then head of Citroën Sport was Guy Frequelin, a former rally driver himself who finished second to Ari Vatanen in the 1981 WRC with a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus (his codriver was non other than Jean Todt). Phillipe Bugalski and co driver Jean-Paul Chiaroni managed to win their class at the Xsara Kit Cars first outing (Rally Catalunya), but more importantly by the late 90s those Kit Cars were fast enought to fight for overall honors on tramac as sister brand Peugeot proved at Tour de Corse later in the year when Francois Delecour finished second overall with 306 Maxi Kit Car. A year later Bugalski won both the Rally Catalunya and Tour de Corse. As a result, the Xsara Kit Car is engraved in the history books as the last 2WD car to win a WRC event overall, and more likely than not it will forever hold this unique position. Needless to say, the manufacturers fielding World Rally Cars were pissed. But it didn't matter, for Citroën it was time to move on to the next level.
Xsara Kit Car. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/klausnahr/10158158654)
In the year 2000 the Xsara T4 WRC was born and fielded in the French Rally Championship. As a modern rally car it followed the known principles. A compact C-segment car with a transverse inline four engine, three differentials and McPherson strus all round. It was both a development year to prepare for the World Championship and probably an attempt to convince parent company PSA to green light the project. Not an easy task considering that sister brand Peugeot was in the proccess of winning the World Championship with the 206 WRC that shared nothing with the Xsara T4 WRC. In the end, Bugalski managed to win 7 events and the championship in the pre faclift Xsara T4 WRC, wich surly helped Frequelins cause.
Pre facelift Xsara T4 WRC, note the bigger rear wing and different arches compared to the similar looking Kit Car. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Citroen_Xsara_T4.jpg)
In 2001 Citroën returned to the WRC with the now faclifted Xsara WRC (T4 was dropped from the name) for a limited program of 4 events. Both drivers from the Kit Car days, Bugalski and Jesus Puras (co driven by Marc Marti) were retained, while Thomas Radström/Tina Thörner made a one of apperance for the team at the Acropolis as did Sebastian Loeb/Daniel Elena (''Danos'') at the Rally San Remo. Loeb imidiatly impressed as he finished a close seconed to the then reignin tarmac god Gilles Panizzi. While it was Bugalski who won two years ago, it was now the turn of Puras to win the Tour de Corse. The first overall victory in the WRC for a 4WD Citroën. Much remained the same for 2002, excpet they now entered 11 events, but still didn't enlist for the Manufacturers Championship. Apparently Citroën was in no hurry with their WRC program.
After the facelift, the Xsaras appearance didn't change noticeably any more. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_-_Bonhams_2013_-_Citro%C3%ABn_Xsara_WRC_-_2003_-_001.jpg)
On came 2003 and suddenly Citroën was the team to beat. No wonder with a driverlinup of double World Champion Carlos Sainz (with Puras former co Marco Marti alongside him), World Champions Colin McRea/Derek Ringer and the promising talent Loeb. Dutifully they delivered the first manufacturers title beating sister brand Peugeot by 15 points.
In 2004 Citroën achieved its first ''double'' when Loeb also secured his first drivers title. The aging Xsara WRC and Loeb continued winning in 2005 and 2006. Notably the 2005 season was the last to feature fully active cars with active front, center and rear differentials, active suspension, GPS based ride hight control, electronic dampers, traction control and ABS. In its last season the Xsara WRC remained competitive as a passive car as well, so much so that Loeb could miss the last four rallies due to a „mountainbike crash“ that probably involved something two wheeled with more horsepower. But the season sticks out mainly because Citroën decided to focus on the development for the new C4 WRC and let the private Kronos team run the cars as a semi works team.
In 2007 the new C4 WRC continued were the old Xsara WRC left, although it failed to secure the manufacturers title in its first year. In its seond season the ''status quo'' was restord as Citroën won both titles under the guidance of new Citroën Sport leader Olivier Quesnel. It's worth noting that the C4 WRC got a 100% win rate on tarmac WRC events. The great performance of their cars on tarmac was a Citroën trademark until 2019. During this time period the big manufacturer exodus happend and only Ford and Citroën remained to fight it out between them. Though the Focus RS WRC was a match for the old Xsara WRC and the early C4 WRC, the car fell back throught its life cycle (a recurring theme with M-Sport developed cars). As a result the C4-Loeb combo was victorious in 2009 and 2010 as well, wich made it the last World Rally Car to win under the 2 Litre rules.
C4 WRC on Citroën's most successful international event, Rally Germany in 2008. (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:02_Dani-Sordo-GER08.jpg)
Considering the lack of manufacturer involvement, something needed to be done, so the regulations changed for the 2011 season (allowing for smaller B-segment base cars, 1,6 litre engines, no center differential). Citroën presented the DS3 WRC, again a car that delivered titles (the double in 2011 and 2012), but unlike its two predecessors it eventually got beaten. After Loeb retiered, Citroën Sport now under the leadership of Yves Matton focused on the WTCC and scaled down their involvment in the WRC. The DS3 WRC was aging and the new cars of the competition showed up the inherent flaws of the design (short suspension travel). On top of that, they lacked a suitable lead driver to challange Sebastian Ogier/Julien Ingrassia and the might of VW.
A DS3 WRC from 2012, their last championship winning season. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Citro%C3%ABn_-_DS3_WRC_-_Mondial_de_l%27Automobile_de_Paris_2012_-_201.jpg)
When Citroën entered the 2016 season with a limited semi works program to focus on the development of the new C3 WRC for the upcoming 2017 rule change (bigger restrictor, less weight, active center differental, more aero freedom), they made a statement of intent, Citroën was fully committed again. Kris Meeke and co driver Paul Nagle won 2 rallies that season, it all seem to come togehter, Meeke finally comming of age and the C3 WRC looking rapid in testing.
Debut of the C3 WRC at the 2017 RMC. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:C3_WRC_in_Monte_Carlo_-_fotocredd_Citro%C3%ABn_Racing.jpg)
We all know how it went. The C3 WRC wasn't allways competitive, difficult to drive sometimes even. While it was fast enough to win stages and rallies, it was overall probably the worst package of the season. To ad insult to injury, Meeke proved to be as inconsistent as ever and his young teammates Craig Breen (co driven by Scott Martin) and Stephane Lefebvre (co driven by Gabin Moreau) didn't manage to fight at the front either.
After such a disappointing season the team restructuerd and former head of customer racing operations Pierre Budar was appointed as the new Team Principle and Loeb came back for 3 outings. While the car improved for the 2018 season, the lack of a reliable lead driver hindered their chances. Meeke binned it one to many times in Portugal and was sacked. The only win came thanks to Loeb at the Rally Catalunya late in the season. Once again there was only hope it would be better next season and in many ways it was. Now with Ogier and Esepekka Lappi (co driven by Janne Ferm) in the cars, there were no question marks over the drivers any more. Ogier won their 100th event at the season opener Monte Carlo Rally and Lappi followed it up with a second place in Sweden. But as the season went on the C3 was uncharacteristically sub par on tramac wich unsettled Ogier, while Lappi struggled to get at ease with the car on a regular basis. And as the Yaris WRC was as fast as in 2018 and Hyundai made a huge leap forward with their i20 WRC, both Citroën and Ogier had to settle for third in the championship.
Winning three rallies and even finishing 1-2 in one of them isn't a bad season in it self, especially when you look at the fierce competition they were up against, but by the high standards of Citroën and Ogier it was a dissapointment, probably one to many. Considering PSA got other matters on their hand right now and their last foray left a bitter after taste it is unlikely that we will see Citroën (or PSA in general) involved in top level rallying any time soon. Alas, it was fun while it lasted.