Competition in the Rally2 category – which forms the basis of the World Rally Championship’s WRC2 and WRC3 supports, plus the top level of the European Rally Championship and most national championships – remains as fierce as ever.
Citroën has faced a long, hard road to make its C3 R5 competitive. But after two years of work, it’s finally starting to look like it’s closed the gap.
Five large-scale car manufacturers currently build – or in the case of Ford, license the build of – R5 cars, the original name for Rally2 that is still commonly in use by some manufacturers. And that’s before counting smaller-scale projects like the Proton Iriz or Toyota Etios.
Until now the class of the R5 field has been the Škoda Fabia and M-Sport-built Ford Fiesta. After years of development, Hyundai’s i20 R5 appears to be getting closer to the top two, scoring twice as many rally wins as the C3 R5 despite only being on the market for a year longer.
Citroën wanted to be in that leading group with its C3 R5. Initially, it wasn’t even close.
Several less experienced drivers were given the opportunity to pilot the C3 R5 for the works team when it was introduced in 2018, before WRC rally winner Mads Østberg was put in charge of development of the car and sent to compete in the WRC2 Pro category in 2019.
His early outings did not go entirely well.
As Østberg told DirtFish’s David Evans last year, he “felt so uncomfortable and afraid” when driving the C3 R5 on its WRC debut on Rally Sweden. The set-up window was tiny and the car lacked grip everywhere.
“We have to try to make the car drivable,” he concluded.
Unsurprisingly the C3 R5 was at its best on asphalt from the start, as it is the French manufacturer’s natural domain. But it still needed vast improvement across the board; Østberg continued to struggle with the car’s suspension into the latter half of 2019.
It seems after two years of work, the C3 R5 is starting to turn a corner.
“It’s been a really nice challenge to be involved in the development of the C3 R5, which was not an easy project to start with for Citroën,” Østberg now says.
“They didn’t have the success they wanted and I think with the job that we have done over the last two years now it’s improved a lot; it’s proven to be one of the best cars on the market on the R5 side.”
International rallying’s much-anticipated return after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic at Rally di Roma demonstrated that.
Alexey Lukyanuk won the event in a Saintéloc Racing-prepared C3, while Efrén Llarena picked up sixth in only his second-ever rally in an R5 car. But more impressive still was Andrea Crugnola who, until COVID-19 budget restrictions set in, was all set to become a factory Citroën driver this year.
Crugnola was the pre-event favorite to win, and for good reason, having won 13 out of 16 stages the year before. He went on to win six of the nine stages he finished this year, though crashing out on the first stage of the rally threw a wrench in the works for the overall win. But the pace was clear for all to see.
Retaining that blazing pace was notable though, as Crugnola is fairly new to the C3. This was only his third event since making the switch to a Citroën. Last year he split his time between two of the most highly-rated R5s on the market: the Fabia and Volkswagen’s Polo GTI. Pre-2019, his regular chariot of choice was the first generation Fiesta, so he’s driven most of the fast R5s out there.
Even after sampling the competing R5s in depth, Crugnola still prefers the C3, and “not just because I drive a Citroën, but because it’s true,” as he’s quick to qualify.
“With the Citroën I’m more confident with the front axle, which is very important for my driving style,” Crugnola explained to DirtFish.
“With the other R5s that I drove in the past, I had to change my driving style a bit. Now I can brake a little bit earlier and I can get on the throttle earlier, because I can preload the front axle a little bit less.
“With the other cars, if you didn’t preload the front axle a lot then you had some problems with understeer, which I don’t like at all. For sure I like a lot the front axle [on the C3].
“Sometimes I struggle with the rear because it’s moving a little bit, especially in the fast sections, but of course I still have to get used to the car.
“I’ve done three races but I’m still increasing my pace, because I’m getting used to the car, so every time [I drive] I can push a little bit more.”
It’s not just the dynamics of the car that have improved either. The start-stop nature of the Rally di Roma stages, with plenty of junctions and tight corners, meant the wide torque band of the C3’s engine helped Crugnola, Lukyanuk and company zip out of the corners faster than their rivals.
“The window of the torque of the engine is quite wide compared to the other cars, so sometimes you can stay in gear, you don’t have to shift up or down,” he said. “You can keep the gear in, so you can focus a little bit more on your driving style, and you can carry the speed after the corner.”
By no means is the C3 the finished article. Like with Østberg previously, the suspension is still a bugbear for Crugnola. But on the whole, the gap appears to have narrowed to its class rivals.
“On bumpy roads, we still have to work a little bit more because in that area we can improve. But overall I like the car.”
A second key test is coming up soon for Citroën’s marquee rally program, as factory driver Østberg and Saintéloc’s C3 army are both headed to Latvia in two weeks’ time to compete on the fast and mostly flat gravel roads of Rally Liepāja.
It’s a very different prospect to Rome but if Lukyanuk and Llarena are able to show the same speed on the loose stuff as on Rome’s paved roads, and Østberg recaptures his early 2020 WRC2 form, the battle for R5 supremacy will at last have another serious contender.