Suzuki takes on the rough roads of Greece
Suzuki's latest challenge in its WRC adventure is the legendary Acropolis Rally, one of the oldest and most prestigious events on the World Rally Championship. The all-gravel event has changed beyond recognition since it was first run as an asphalt rally in 1951, but the traditional start at the Acropolis - the most famous monument in Athens - remains. This year, the rally has a brand-new base in the Tatoi Military Area, just north of Athens city centre. The stages however are largely unchanged from last year, and as always they have a fearsome reputation.
The rock-strewn roads are a real test for every mechanical component on a rally car, but particularly the suspension. Sharp stones mean that punctures are a constant risk, while the expected high ambient temperatures also put a big strain on the engine and cooling systems - not to mention the competing crews. All these harsh elements mean that mechanical problems or punctures have frequently dictated the outcome of the Acropolis Rally, so it is essential for the drivers to think strategically when judging the correct pace.
The event gets underway as always with a ceremonial start in the shadow of the Acropolis itself on Thursday night at 19:30 (local time). The crews will then contest seven stages on day one totalling 110 kilometres, six stages on day two making up 119 kilometres, and finally seven more stages on the last day comprising another 110 kilometres, before the finish in Tatoi at 15:00 on Sunday. This demanding itinerary is sure to take its toll on both drivers and cars, with plenty of potential for some last-minute surprises.
Car news - Suzuki SX4 WRC n.11 (Gardemeister) and n.12 (Andersson):
Like the previous round in Sardinia, the Acropolis Rally is an event that Suzuki has experienced before in the Junior World Rally Championship, but this is an entirely different challenge to what is in store with the all-new Suzuki SX4 WRC in the top class. Some aspects of the route are expected to be similar to the previous two rallies in Jordan and Sardinia, enabling Suzuki to put into practice some of the lessons learned on these two rough gravel events. Strength and reliability are the keys to success on rallies such as the Acropolis, and the entire Suzuki World Rally Team was encouraged by a faultless run and top-10 finish for P-G Andersson in Sardinia two weeks ago.
The focus in Greece will once more be upon reliability, and the target is to bring both cars home. Modifications to the SX4 WRC, enabling it to cope with the rough conditions, include increased under-floor protection and improvements to the cooling system. This follows on from the evolutions to the suspension and differential that appeared in Sardinia. The expected warm weather on the Italian island never materialised, but conditions in Greece are forecast to be very hot - making this one of the toughest tests yet for the new SX4 WRC.
With the Acropolis Rally being one of the classic events of the World Rally Championship, both drivers have accumulated some experience of the Greek stages in the past. This will be Toni Gardemeister's seventh Acropolis Rally, with a best result of second overall in 2005. Despite contesting only a limited programme in 2006, he was a solid fourth on the Acropolis two years ago as well. The challenging stages suit the 32 year-old's fluid and precise driving style, so he is hoping to make the most of his Greek outing this year as well. "The Acropolis is a rally that I have always liked, but along with most rallies these days it is more of a sprint event than the marathon it used to be", said the Finn. "If we have the strength and reliability that we are aiming for, then it could actually be a rally that suits our car because the most important thing is to be there at the finish. I think we will approach the rally in much the same way as we did in Sardinia: there is no point in pushing flat-out everywhere. We learnt a lot in Sardinia, so hopefully in Greece we can finish in the points."
P-G Andersson has competed on the Acropolis Rally twice, on the Junior World Rally Championship with Suzuki. The young Swede has mixed memories of the event: on his first experience of the rally in 2004 he rolled his Ignis Super 1600 twice, but in 2005 he won the Junior category. "I've had some very different experiences of the Acropolis, that's true!" says P-G. "It's never the easiest event, but I think for any driver - actually, for the whole team - it's a real challenge. Although I've been to Greece before, I've never done the stages around Athens, as when I competed on the rally previously all the stages were near Lamia - a long way to the west of Athens. Sardinia was a very positive experience for both myself and the whole team so our aim is to repeat that in Greece. I'll just be taking it carefully and driving around the biggest rocks."
For Suzuki, the accent will be once more on reliability throughout the Greek stages, renowned as some of the toughest in the entire World Rally Championship. The Acropolis is the second in a trio of Mediterranean gravel rallies, so all the work carried out in Greece will be vital for the Rally of Turkey two weeks afterwards. Following a reliable run for P-G Andersson from start to the finish in Sardinia, the Suzuki team has been buoyed by the consistency that the SX4 WRC is starting to show. This development curve on rough gravel will be continued over the next few weeks.
Nobuhiro 'Monster' Tajima, the Principal of the Suzuki World Rally Team, commented: "When we embarked upon our debut season this year, we knew from the beginning that it would be very tough - and this has been amply proved. But it is only by confronting the most challenging conditions that we will make progress. For many years the Acropolis Rally has been considered to be one of the most demanding events on the calendar, so we are eagerly awaiting this next challenge near Athens. Our objective remains to get both cars into the points, although this is a big task. In order to help us achieve this, our drivers will need to remember that the most important thing is always to get to the finish, by continuing the mature and measured approach they have adopted all year."