Rally Japan, the thirteenth round of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship, starts next week on 30 September. Coming just two weeks after Wales Rally GB and the tragic accident that claimed the life of Peugeot co-driver Michael Park, preparations...
Rally Japan, the thirteenth round of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship, starts next week on 30 September. Coming just two weeks after Wales Rally GB and the tragic accident that claimed the life of Peugeot co-driver Michael Park, preparations for Japan's usually colourful and vibrant rally have been made in a more sombre and subdued atmosphere than normal.
Subaru's home rally made its WRC calendar debut last year, and drew a massive 210,000 spectators over the three days. Such is the popularity of the sport in Japan that last year's ceremonial start was watched by 52,000 fans. The gravel rally is based in the bustling town of Obihiro, squeezed between the Hidaka and Daisetsuzan mountains on the northernmost of Japan's four islands, Hokkaido.
Last year Petter Solberg led the rally from start to finish to take the inaugural Rally Japan victory. This year the 350 kilometre rally comprises 26 special stages, one fewer than 2004, with all of the stages taking place in the countryside north of Obihiro. Rally Japan is a highly technical event with narrow, twisting, loose gravel stages through woodland, often featuring long straights with tight 90-degree corners. With unpredictable weather added to the mix, the event leaves little margin for error.
Leg one takes crews close to the town of Rikubetsu and features a variety of stages, from a short 2.73km Superspecial to the longest of the entire World Championship, the marathon 50.06km stage from Kunneywa to Niueo. Leg two again returns crews to the north of Obihiro and features 12 stages, including two new speed tests. Leg three, the shortest of the event, comprises only five stages before crews head back to the service in Kita Aikoku, six kilometres from the centre of town, for the finish. A Superspecial is run on all three days of the rally through a purpose-built stage near the Satsunai river that runs past Obihiro.
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Japan driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Stephane Sarrazin will complete the recce to gain experience of the event.
Petter Solberg makes his second Rally Japan appearance after winning the event in 2004. Chris Atkinson contests Rally Japan for the third time after having competed when the event formed part of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. The young Australian's best result came in 2004 when he won the Super 1600 class.
"First and foremost my thoughts are with Michael's family and friends. Beef was a great guy and he will be missed by the whole of the WRC. Both Phil and I knew Michael well after being team mates in 2001 and Phil in particular was very close to him. Everything else that happened at Rally GB seems insignificant next to what happened. The final leaderboard showed that I won the event, but in my mind I finished second. Sebastien deserved the win, but I can understand the reasons why he did what he did. But now we all have to keep going - it's what Beef would have wanted. Rally Japan is Subaru's home event and we have a lot of support there so it's very special for us. It's a very technical event as it can be difficult to read the roads, but we won here last year so we're looking for maximum points again.
"Of course Rally Japan won't be the same without Beef. He was a top guy and we'll all miss him. I think of Rally Japan as my second home event as I have a good understanding of the roads and the conditions. We've competed in the event for the past two years when the event was part of the Asia-Pacific Championship. We've had a good run here too - last year we won our class and set some fast times on most of the stages. The roads are fast and narrow and are quite similar in places to GB, except with more tree cover. Last year the route was very tricky in the damp conditions, but this year it may dry, which will change the character of the stages."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
"It is very hard to talk about the next rally without talking about the sad events of Wales Rally GB. Michael Park was a great guy, one of the most balanced people in the WRC community. He was passionate about rallying, but he understood that there was more to life than the sport and he enjoyed his life to the full. As a member of our team in 2001, he remained a good friend to many at Subaru and he will be sorely missed.
"Rally Japan is still a relatively new event for everyone as it only made its WRC calendar debut last year. We learned a lot at that event, which should help us this time round. This time of year we can expect a wide range of weather conditions, with anything from heavy rain to sunshine, which will affect the character of the stages as the roads could go from very slippery to hard baked relatively quickly. There are some tricky roads that start quite loose, but a clean line quickly develops as more cars pass through the stage. It's a difficult event for drivers and co-drivers to judge the speed and good pace notes will be a big factor. Tyres and tyre choice will also be critical. Rally Japan is one of only four rallies this year where teams must choose one tyre pattern for the entire event and with some long stage groups, tyre wear will be high.
"Japan is the home of Subaru and it makes the event the most important and highly-anticipated rally of the year for us. Last year we had phenomenal support from the fans and the crowds were literally a sea of blue and yellow. The aim for Petter is obviously to challenge for the win. He had a good test in Wales before Rally GB where we looked at set-ups for Japan. Obviously we can't test locally, but the conditions we had at the test were quite similar to those we could have in Japan.
"The emphasis for Chris will shift for this event to achieving results rather than gaining experience. This is the first event where Chris feels at home as he's taken part in the rally for the previous two years.
"We've seen some hard-fought competitions in the last few events and I fully expect a close battle between Sebastien, Marcus and Petter. Rally Japan could well go down to the wire."