<em>The event</em> After a two-month break, the World Rally Championship is about to resume, and the Subaru World Rally Team will be busier than ever as it prepares to field three cars for the first time this season. Joining Petter...
After a two-month break, the World Rally Championship is about to resume, and the Subaru World Rally Team will be busier than ever as it prepares to field three cars for the first time this season.
Joining Petter Solberg/Phil Mills and Chris Atkinson/Stephane Prevot behind the wheel of Subaru Impreza WRC2007s will be Xavier Pons/Xavier Amigo, the Spanish pair making their debut for the Japanese manufacturer.
Next weekend's Rally Finland is one of the classic events in the WRC schedule. It's a high-speed thrash along smooth, flowing gravel tracks through pine and spruce forests and past the thousands of lakes which are scattered through the area. The rally is based in Jyvaskyla, a vibrant town which is the cultural and business hub of central Finland. During the 17th century, before the town was founded, the heavily-forested area was a hunting ground for people from southern Finland.
The only hunting going on next weekend will be for the optimum set-up to cope with the unique conditions thrown up by this highly specialised event. On some of the flat-out Finnish tracks, World Rally Cars hit 200kph, while the average speed for the event is about 120kph, making this the fastest event on the calendar. Although the special stages are wide by WRC standards, the presence of trees and large rocks means there is little room for error. It is essential to have a fast, consistent, stable car which can ride the flat-out crests and jumps at high speeds.
It is not all about which World Rally Car has the best top speed, however. The car needs to be agile, with precise handling, but also needs soft suspension and lots of wheel travel to get grip on the gravel roads. This equation is usually biased slightly towards accurate handling, because it is crucial that the driver has confidence in the behaviour of his machine. If he isn't sure how the car will land after a high-speed crest, he will not be able to push to the maximum.
This year's event will test the concentration of the crews, because a total of 46 per cent of the rally route is new. That will level the playing field, because the more seasoned drivers won't be able to rely purely on experience. Don't be surprised to see some of the younger drivers giving the established stars a fright with some competitive stage times. On the other hand, a home advantage always helps and this event has only been won by non-Nordic drivers on three occasions.
The event commences at 2000hrs on Thursday evening with a 2.06km SuperSpecial based inside the horse trotting track at Killeri. In total there will be 23 timed sections, with a combined competitive distance of 360.34km.
The Subaru World Rally Team has entered three Impreza WRC2007s for the ninth round of the World Rally Championship. Petter Solberg/Phil Mills will drive car number seven, Chris Atkinson/Stephane Prevot will drive car number eight, while Pons/Amigo will be in car number seventeen. Petter and Phil have contested the event six times with Subaru and have finished on the podium twice. Their best result, second place, came in 2003. This will be Chris's fourth Rally Finland, (albeit his first with Stephane Prevot as his co-driver) and the Australian is aiming to use the experience gained since 2004 to secure a solid points finish. Xevi Pons may be a newcomer to the Subaru team, but he is no stranger to Rally Finland and has competed there for the last four years. Xevi's best result so far is the twelfth place he scored in 2005.
Richard Taylor, Subaru World Rally Team managing director:
"We saw in Greece that the Impreza WRC2007 had good pace in certain circumstances and since then we've been focusing on improving its drivability and the consistency of its performance. Over the summer break we have done a lot of work on the car which has been very beneficial and we've learned a lot. We have tested for a total of 10 days in Wales, Germany and Finland, and have also spent a considerable amount of time rig testing and gathering data at a track here in the UK. Our efforts have been focused on steering, dampers and differentials, particularly in the analysis and measurement of some of the chassis and handling issues that affected the car earlier in the year. We have also been preparing for the asphalt rallies that make up 50 per cent of the second half of the season. In Finland we want to see a clear improvement in the team performance, and also that the drivers are able to get a consistent feel from the car and really exploit its potential."
Paul Howarth, Subaru World Rally Team operations director:
"Finland is a real drivers' rally and the smooth, flowing stages make it one of the favourites for our crews. But when it comes to lines, precision and commitment to the notes Finland is easily the hardest rally of the year. There is no room for half-hearted commitment - drivers have to attack from the beginning to the end of every stage and have extremely precise pace notes. Finland is not particularly hard on the cars and it doesn't normally wear out the tyres, so drivers don't need to be too tactical or gentle in their approach. Instead, it's all about confidence. There are some changes to the route this year with some new sections to tackle, but the fundamental character of the rally remains the same."
"Finland is a great event and one of my favourites of the year. There's a good atmosphere, it's well organised and the stages are incredible. This year I think the rally is going to be very interesting as the level of local competition is so high. There are 28 WRC cars -- eight of which will be driven by Finns, and they always seem to go well on their home ground, so I'm expecting the competition to be pretty fierce. The last event in Greece was very positive for us and I really hope to do even better next week. The guys have been working very hard over the summer and hopefully we can show a good pace all weekend."
"I'm really looking forward to starting Rally Finland; it's a great event and certainly one of the most challenging rallies of the year. The stages are very fast and you have to put a lot of effort into your pace notes, but they are just the type of roads that I like and over the last couple of years my speed there has been good. Over the summer everybody in the team has been working hard and a lot of effort and hours have been put into improving the car. I hope things work well when we get to Finland and we can start to repay all the effort with a good result."
"It's my first event with the Subaru team and I'm very excited about finally getting to drive the Impreza on a WRC event. The Finland pre-event test last week went very well, I got a good feeling and good balance with the car and I'm feeling pretty confident and ready to go. Rally Finland is certainly a very tricky event, and it's not exactly the easiest place to start my career with Subaru, but overall I'm feeling very positive."
<em>Between the rallies</em>
Petter, Chris and Xavier have each been involved in the team's mid-season test and development programme, but they have also taken time out to re-charge their batteries ahead of the second half of the WRC season. Chris took a 10-day trip to Australia to visit friends and relatives, but has spent most of the break at home in Monte Carlo, where he has been running and bicycling to keep fit. Petter has been with his family in Norway and Sweden. He has been quad biking and fishing with his son and also went to see Rod Stewart at a charity concert. As part of his own preparations for his Subaru rally debut, Xevi Pons has driven the Impreza WRC2007 on roads in Wales, Germany and Finland. But Pons is also able to draw on experience from his previous career as one of the world's top Enduro riders. He has fond memories of the Finnish tracks from when he last competed there on two wheels in 1996.