As the 2005 WRC season reaches its mid-point, teams head back to the Mediterranean next week to contest round eight of the 16 rally series, the Acropolis Rally of Greece. The final event in a quartet of hot and rough Mediterranean gravel ...
As the 2005 WRC season reaches its mid-point, teams head back to the Mediterranean next week to contest round eight of the 16 rally series, the Acropolis Rally of Greece. The final event in a quartet of hot and rough Mediterranean gravel rallies, the Acropolis is renowned for its high temperatures, abrasive surfaces and loose rocks that litter the stages.
The rally has a reputation as a car-breaker, with tyres and mechanical components pushed to the limit along rough dirt tracks at average speeds higher than those on the preceding rounds in Cyprus and Turkey. The scorching Greek summer weather makes conditions inside the cockpit almost as unpleasant as those outside, with drivers facing searing heat, clouds of dust and a very bumpy ride.
Although the event is based in central Greece, around the HQ town of Lamia, Thursday's start will take place in Athens with an ambitious side-by-side Superspecial stage built in the Olympic Stadium. The stage features two 1.2km loops, a bridge crossover and an asphalt road surface - even though the cars will be fitted with gravel tyres. With 45,000 of the 60,000 available tickets already sold, and with a guest list that includes the Greek Prime Minister, the Acropolis Superspecial looks set to be one of the most extravagant stages of the season.
The Subaru World Rally Team will be entering a three-car team in the Acropolis Rally. The three Subaru Impreza WRC2005's will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn MacNeall) and Stéphane Sarrazin (co-driven by Denis Giraudet).
After winning the event last year in a Subaru Impreza WRC2004, Petter Solberg has the best possible form ahead of this year's Acropolis. With the 2005 Championship title battle intensifying, Petter will be seeking to secure another good points finish next week. There are different objectives for Petter's two Subaru team-mates, Chris Atkinson and Stéphane Sarrazin, as neither has contested the event before. Instead, both of the WRC newcomers will be concentrating on learning more about their cars in the specialist conditions. Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson have been nominated as the two SWRT drivers eligible to score points in the Manufacturers' Championship.
"I'm heading to Greece with the objective to win. I'm ready for a big attack, I expect to take a few risks, but I'm planning to do all I can to take ten points. I think the whole team and me are so determined to win now that we have the same goals - win the next rally, get back on track and get the winning spirit. I'm not going there for second place. I like the Acropolis rally a lot. It's rough and rocky, but that's normally good for Subaru and Pirelli, I think they have a good formula in the conditions and I hope the combination will be successful. The stage in the stadium sounds like fun. I'm pleased that so may people who love rallying will get the chance to see the cars. Sometimes it's difficult for them to get out on the stages. Driving on gravel tyres won't be any problem - it'll make a hell of a show."
"Once again it's a new rally for me and I'm looking forward to starting it. I'm expecting the Greek stages to present a different sort of challenge to the Turkish ones, but Subaru has a good history there. I've only been to the Rally of Greece once before, and then only as a spectator, but from what I saw, the mixture of conditions will make the stages good fun to drive. My main objective for the rally is to run at a solid pace all weekend, not push too hard, and get a solid overall result. I've been taking full advantage of the Superally regulations so far this year, but I'm hoping I won't need to in Greece."
"I'm feeling fine and really looking forward to the second gravel rally in my career. I think for next week I will have a good car and I'm ready to give my best effort. After my last rally in Sardinia I was very happy with the feeling, and next week I'll be trying to improve myself and push a bit more. Since Sardinia my pace-note system with Denis has developed a lot, and we have had opportunities to practise it on the recces in Cyprus and Turkey. My main objective is to improve my car control, it has more performance available than I am using just yet, so I hope that we'll learn more get more speed and continue like that."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth:
"We're expecting the Acropolis rally to be a much hotter and harder event than the last round in Turkey, where the stages were in particularly good condition. The roads are rocky, rough and similar in character to those in Cyprus, just not quite as twisty. The rally features two new stages this year, but on the whole it's an event that we know well, and one on which we've had a good deal of success. Petter won the rally last year and it's fair to say that the Impreza/Pirelli partnership has a good track record there.
After Cyprus and Turkey, I expect that most manufacturers will be well prepared for this event. What this typically means is that teams tend to be less conservative than they might have been. Because this is the third rough event in a row, and drivers have got a good feeling for the pace, the car, tyre wear and so on, there shouldn't be any surprises, and you'd expect that drivers would push a little harder than normal. Next week we will be using a Pirelli tyre that was originally designed to suit the sort of conditions we would expect to find in Greece. We had the same tyre available in Turkey but the weather wasn't as expected and it didn't really suit the conditions. Greece at end of June should be pretty hot, and we're expecting to use the new tyre in its ideal environment.
Strategically, the season is starting to get interesting for us. On the Acropolis rally we're going to be pushing hard for a win, but we have to balance the level of risk very carefully. Of course Petter has to start taking some risks if he's to win the Championship, yet he can't throw caution to the wind. We can't afford to score any more zeros. What's clear is that at this stage of the season, consistency is still the main priority. Were certainly not into the high-risk scenario yet. Stéphane will be starting only his second ever WRC gravel rally so clearly his focus will be on learning. It's another development event for Chris too. As another newcomer, the whole of this season is a learning experience for him and the emphasis isn't really on results at the moment. Nevertheless, as he's getting more mileage under his belt, we expect to start seeing him score points."
Between the Rallies
With rallies coming thick and fast at this point in the season, Petter has still managed to squeeze in a few marathon sessions at the gym, the odd adventure on his quad bike and a spot of fishing on a lake with his son Oliver. Petter won't reveal how many fish he caught, but Oliver did okay with three. On June 15th Petter flew to Wales for a test the following day, the focus of which was the Impreza's transmission system and other more general research and development work. Chris, Glenn and Phil were also tearing through the countryside in Wales this week, but at a slightly more sedate pace. The team's fitness trainer, John Mills, accompanied the trio on a 35km bicycle ride from the Welsh mountain biking centre in Nat-yr-Arian, near Aberystwyth. Apart from driving rain and a few punctures, the event was deemed a great success. Circuit ace Stéphane Sarrazin is making final preparations in France ahead of the Le Mans 24hr race, which starts at 1600hrs on Saturday. One of the three drivers of car number 59, Stéphane will fly from Paris to Greece on Monday to meet the rest of the team and start the recce.