THE EVENT Five months after its last visit to the country, the FIA World Rally Championship returns to Spain for the first of two consecutive asphalt events, the Rally Catalunya-Costa Daurada. The fourth of the 16-round series is considered to...
Five months after its last visit to the country, the FIA World Rally Championship returns to Spain for the first of two consecutive asphalt events, the Rally Catalunya-Costa Daurada. The fourth of the 16-round series is considered to be the first 'true' asphalt event of the year and has little in common with the earlier sealed surface rally in Monte Carlo. Rally Catalunya is paired with Corsica's Tour de Corse and the same cars will contest both events with one week in between for re-preparation.
The route of Rally Catalunya has changed several times in recent years. In 2005, the event's base moved 200km south from the Costa Brava to the Costa Daurada and to roads that had not been part of World Championship rallying for ten years. Most of the special stages are now based in the mountains of the Tarragona region.
The smooth, wide roads of Rally Catalunya make it the fastest sealed surface rally of the year. Cutting corners is commonplace as drivers look for every advantage on the stages and accurate pace notes are critical to optimise the racing line. The cars ride lower to the ground than on gravel events, with the suspension set much stiffer to reduce body roll and maximise cornering speeds.
This year the rally has changed dates, moving from late autumn to early spring. The calendar shift brings with it an increased chance of rain and colder temperatures which could make the stages especially dirty and slippery.
The action begins with a ceremonial start on the Salou seafront on Thursday night, with the competitive action starting at 0805hrs the next day. The rally comprises 16 stages, with six on Leg one, six on Leg two and four on the final day. There's been little change to the route for 2006, although a new 15.85km stage has been created between the towns of Margalef and la Palma d'Ebre. The podium finish will be on the Salou promenade on Sunday at 1456hrs.
Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Stephane Sarrazin (co-driven by Stephane Prevot) will both drive Subaru Impreza WRC2006s and are nominated to score manufacturers' points. This will be Petter's sixth Rally Catalunya and Stephane's third. The Frenchman achieved his highest placed WRC finish in 2004 when he finished the event fourth overall in a privately-entered Subaru Impreza.
Chris Atkinson will contest the rally in a Subaru Australia-entered Subaru Impreza WRC2005. The event will be Chris' second Rally Catalunya.
Petter Solberg: "I'm very much looking forward to this rally. I'll be looking for a podium first of all - ideally with Marcus and Sebastien behind me - that would be perfect! It will be difficult though as these two will be the main guys. Our result was very good in Mexico and we had a positive test in Italy last week. I had a good feeling with the car and we made some improvements -- how much we will see in Spain. I'm feeling pretty confident about it, we've had a big step forward in the car since Monte Carlo, I'm looking forward to getting back out there and scoring some more points."
Stephane Sarrazin: "I'm excited to be back in a rally again and feel very good in the car. We had one day testing last week and we worked through some set-ups and got some promising results that we can apply in Spain. I'll be doing my best job for the team. Last year wasn't such a great result but I think we can get in the top five this time and could even fight with the top three. I hope to improve on our performance in Monte Carlo and help Subaru in the manufacturers' championship."
Chris Atkinson: "Last year we had a solid event in Spain and we showed a fast pace considering our level of asphalt experience at the time. Competing in Rally Ireland last weekend has massively increased our understanding of driving on an asphalt surface, especially of driving in the wet. This will help our performance particularly if we encounter similar weather in Spain. I hope to continue to improve in this rally."
THE CAR / THE CHALLENGE
Subaru World Rally Team sporting director, Luis Moya: "We need to count Rally Catalunya as the first asphalt event of the year as Monte Carlo is always a bit of an anomaly. The testing we've done with the car last week was very positive and the tyres suit the road surface extremely well.
It's the first real sealed surface rally of 2006 so we have no benchmark to measure ourselves against. We can't compare this year to last as we've made some changes and the car is very different -- we'll just have to wait and see, but we're all very optimistic about the chances of a good result.
We're back in Spain now after only five months so the route hasn't changed a great deal, but the weather may well be a factor as it is very unstable at the moment. It will be as difficult to predict the conditions as it will be to predict the outcome of the rally."
Subaru World Rally Team director of engineering, Steve Farrell: "Spain will be the first of two paired asphalt events. The demands between gravel and asphalt are very different and the past few sealed surface events have not proven just reward for our efforts. Since Germany last year we've been working extremely hard on developing a much more specialised car.
Most of the differences concern the brakes and the tyres, however we've also introduced a suspension package with completely new uprights and geometry. Clearly the regulation changes mean we're also having to evaluate the performance of mechanical differentials. We looked at the car's set-up in a four day asphalt test in Italy last week in addition to an intensive tyre testing programme. It was very productive -- Pirelli has done a fantastic job and come up with some tyres that look very promising, so we're optimistic about the rally. We feel we've got a good all-round package."
BETWEEN THE RALLIES
Petter Solberg returned to Europe immediately after the final Leg of Rally Mexico. Two days later he was back on a plane to Northern Italy for three days asphalt testing with the Impreza WRC2006. Petter's also been doing some fitness training with Subaru World Rally Team performance trainer, John Mills. "I feel good now, training flat out and on top form," Petter reported.
It's been two months since Stephane Sarrazin had his last competitive WRC outing. He's still fulfilled an important role within the team though, with a four-day tyre test with Pirelli at the end of February and one day of asphalt testing in Italy last week "The tests have been very positive, I feel I know the car and the set-up very well now," commented Stephane.
Chris Atkinson had a hectic, but very successful, few weeks. The Australian competed in WRC candidate event, Rally Ireland, from 10-12 March. It was Chris' first outing in a Group N Subaru Impreza since 2004 but he stormed to the class win with a two and a half minute advantage over his closest rival. His efforts were rewarded with the 'Spirit of the Rally' award for demonstrating outstanding commitment in challenging conditions.