The Subaru World Rally Team launches its 2006 World Rally Championship campaign in style this week in the glamorous principality of Monaco. Commencing on Friday 20 January, the historic Rallye Monte Carlo will see the competitive debut of the Subaru World Rally Team's latest title challenger, the Subaru Impreza WRC2006. Petter Solberg, Stéphane Sarrazin and Chris Atkinson continue with the team in 2006.
The 2006 season will bring a range of challenges for teams and drivers, with new technical regulations demanding the removal of several computer controlled systems and a longer season stretching into December. The 16-round series kicks off with the classic three-day Rallye Monte Carlo, renowned as the most prestigious event in the Championship calendar. The combination of glamour and opulence makes the rally one of the most eagerly anticipated WRC events of the year, but its twisty route with little margin for error also makes it one of the most fearsome for drivers.
Run through the southern Alps above Monte Carlo, the route often features vertical drops on one side and sheer rock face on the other. It's not uncommon for the twisty asphalt roads to be dry and abrasive at the start, only to become ice and snow covered as they climb up into the mountains. In these variable conditions predicting the levels of grip is extremely tricky and tyre choices are almost always a compromise, with drivers forced to base their decisions on the most suitable pattern for the majority of the stage. The ability to be ultra-fast when conditions and tyres are well suited, yet still maintain a competitive pace when the choice is less than ideal, is a key test of this rally.
The 74th Rally Monte Carlo will commence with the traditional ceremony on Thursday 19 January from the Place du Casino at 18h30. The rally will feature 18 stages and a competitive distance of 366.39km. The first Leg includes a return of the classic St Sauveur sur Tinée - Beuil last used in 1997 and two new stages, with the famous Col de Turini stage run on the final Leg on Sunday. The official podium finish will be in front of the Palais Princier on Sunday 22 January at 15h25.
The Subaru Impreza WRC2006 will make its debut at the Monte Carlo Rally. Petter Solberg and Stéphane Sarrazin will drive the new car and will be nominated to score manufacturers' points. This year's event will be Stéphane's second Rallye Monte Carlo with the Subaru World Rally Team, while Petter will be contesting his sixth.
Chris Atkinson makes his Monte Carlo debut with in a Subaru Australia-entered Subaru Impreza WRC2005.
"This will be my first Monte Carlo Rally and I'm really looking forward to the challenges of the roads. To get ready for the event I've been watching through videos of the stages to get a feel for them. We're running last year's car, which will make it easier for preparation as we won't have to get used to a new car and a new rally. Of course Petter and Stéphane are nominated to score points for the manufacturers' championship, but it would be nice for us to get some points too. Overall though the goal is to get miles and experience of this specialist rally."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth:
"The principal feature of Monte Carlo is the changeable conditions, not only with regards to the weather, but also to the state of the roads. Drivers can start the Leg on a bone-dry road with high grip, but finish the day on sheet ice and snow. These massive variations can make set-up and tyre choice a huge compromise or a huge gamble. Generally the normal solution is to run with a compromised asphalt set-up that's predictable to drive.
"The new Impreza WRC2006 will make its debut in Monte Carlo. The testing we've done on asphalt so far has been good and we're pleased with the starting ground. This year will be a big shake-up for everyone and who'll be fastest will be one of the biggest questions of the rally. The drivers' championship itself won't be affected.
"There are still the top three drivers, Loeb, Gronholm and Solberg, all with very good teams and the battle for the championship will be as hot as ever. With the same faces and names it will be business as usual. Our goal is to win that drivers' championship with Petter.
"Petter certainly has a shot at winning every rally, but our eye will always be on the championship. We start each event looking to win, but we won't sacrifice points at the expense of the title. If a win is on the cards in Monte Carlo we will go for it, but if the weather doesn't suit us we'll strategically go for points - this isn't a case of Monte Carlo or bust!
"This will be Stéphane's second time in Monte Carlo at the wheel of a Subaru. He's now got enough experience to get a result and can be on the podium if he has a clean run. There's the top three championship contenders, but Stéphane is one of a further five drivers entirely capable of achieving a very good result. Even though he still hasn't got a lot of experience on snow and ice, he stands to do very well if the conditions suit him.
"Chris will enter his first-ever Monte Carlo Rally this year and this will probably be the last time we say he has a steep learning curve.
He's now got experience of all the rallies and his year will be focussed on building on 2005's solid foundations. Both he and the team will be looking for good finishes."
Between the Rallies
Petter Solberg spent the holidays with wife Pernilla, four-year old son Oliver and his family in the mountains in Norway, talking a lot about motorsport. For Christmas he received some underwear, lots of pairs of socks, a black stripy shirt and some fish (live ones). After a relaxing holiday, Petter spent two days of testing with the new car in Sweden.
Stéphane Sarrazin spent a relaxing Christmas in France with his family, but then stepped it up a gear when he went out riding motorbikes with friends. Stéphane was very happy with his presents, but couldn't actually recall what he got… New son Pablo enjoyed Christmas too, although Stéphane didn't get a present from him - he said having him was already 'a great present.'
Chris Atkinson stayed in Australia after the last event of the 2005 season, Rally Australia, until the New Year. Chris spent his birthday, Christmas and New Year at his home on the Gold Coast catching up with the family and friends he hadn't seen for the best part of a year. His favourite Christmas present was a book on Jeremy McGrath, the most successful rider in American Supercross, which he's reading at the moment. New Year's Eve was a fairly quiet affair for Chris as he had to leave early the next day to return to SWRT HQ in England.