The next round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship starts on 3 September when crews move to the Far East to contest the eleventh event of the series, Rally Japan. Based in the country's northernmost island of Hokkaido, the rally will be a ...
The next round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship starts on 3 September when crews move to the Far East to contest the eleventh event of the series, Rally Japan. Based in the country's northernmost island of Hokkaido, the rally will be a significant one for Subaru as it competes in a WRC event on home ground for the first time.
First run in 2001 as the Hokkaido Rally, for the last two years the event has been included in the FIA Asia-Pacific Championship. Following the inaugural Corona WRC Rally Mexico in March, Japan will become the second event to make its World Rally Championship debut in 2004. The third, Rally Italia Sardinia, occurs in October.
With FIA regulations preventing teams from testing outside Europe, the event's narrow gravel stages run in the Tokachi region remain unfamiliar for almost all the FIA WRC competitors. Presenting crews with a series of twisty, smooth, loose-gravel roads, which are fast and flowing in places, the stages run through some deeply forested areas. Weather conditions are expected to be wet and unpredictable, making tyre choice a difficult factor.
After a ceremonial start in the host city of Obihiro, 900km north of Tokyo, the event will commence on Friday morning when 90 competitors from 17 countries will cross the start ramp. In total, the event comprises 387.50 competitive kilometres and 27 stages run in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido. The longest stage is the Niueo stage at 26.57km, while the shortest is the 2.2km head-to-head Super Special at Satsunai.
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Japan. They will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen).
In common with the majority of WRC drivers, Petter and Mikko will be drawing on their knowledge of other loose-gravel events, such as New Zealand and Finland, as they make their Rally Japan debuts next week.
Even a week after the accident in Germany it still feels incredible to have come through without a scratch. I know why the accident happened, and this is a different event, but my feeling ahead of this rally is that I'm not going to be pushing like crazy straight away. It's a new event, and I think it will suit the car and my driving style, but to begin with I'll be focusing on building the speed smoothly and building up my confidence too. To be representing Subaru in Japan makes it an especially important rally for our team and Phil and I are going to be doing everything we can to get the best result in front of the home fans.
Looking back to Germany, it was good that I finished and got some points for the team, but it wasn't the result I was hoping for. It was my first event on wet tarmac with the Impreza and Pirelli tyres and I definitely got some good experience behind the wheel. I learnt a lot and set some good stage times, but I was not so happy with my finishing position. Eighth is okay, but not enough and I need to do more. I've seen some video footage of the Japanese stages and they look quite slippery and wet, but I think that will suit us. There's rain expected this year, but it should be good fun and I'm hoping for a good result. It's special to be competing for Subaru at its home event for the first time and I hope to do well.
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
Going to a new event is always interesting, especially as most people believe it creates a level playing field for all the drivers. However, while it's true that experienced drivers have no knowledge of the event and can't benefit from pace notes taken in previous years, experience shows they're the ones that usually adapt quickest to new stages. Looking back, every new event in recent years has been won by an established driver.
The challenge for the team and our drivers will be to learn as quickly as possible which tyres suit the terrain, identify the best set-up for the car and to try and anticipate how factors, such as multiple stage use and changeable weather, may affect the stages and overall result. In terms of the terrain, the event seems unique. The stages are in no way extreme, yet they're unlike any others in the Championship. It's not that they're particularly slow, fast, tough or smooth, just that the overall blend is different from those seen elsewhere. Also of interest will be the weather. It can be unpredictable at this time of year and that could have an impact on the result. Looking at the set-up of the Subaru Impreza WRC2004, we'll go to Japan with a tried and tested package. Our challenge will be to concentrate on adapting to the event, rather than introducing new elements or major developments.
In the Drivers' Championship, Petter's strategy is now simple - to go out and win as many events as possible. The nature of the Japanese stages should suit him and judging by his recent gravel performance, we have every reason to expect him to be fighting for a win. Mikko has targeted this event as one where he hopes to challenge the established drivers. We'll be looking to benchmark his speed on an event where everyone starts with no previous knowledge.
Japan is Subaru's home as well as being its largest and one of its most important markets and, naturally, that makes Japan the most important, highly anticipated event of the year for us. This first Japanese rally provides a unique opportunity to impress the Japanese motorsport fans that have never before had the opportunity to see a World Championship Rally on their doorstep. That makes it very exciting.
Between the Rallies
After the dramatic accident in Germany just six days ago, Petter's co-driver Phil Mills is fighting fit and keen to get back in the cockpit. "I can honestly say I'm looking forward to it," said Phil. "I had a couple of rest days after the crash, but then I was back training with a physiotherapist and, apart from a bit of stiffness in my joints, I feel fine. We've had a few bumps in our time, but we're okay, we're professionals and it's going to be business as usual on Friday. One thing's for sure though, I certainly owe the guys in the team who were involved in making that car. From the people in the design office, the guys who welded the cage and the others who assembled it in the workshop, I really can't thank them enough."
Petter Solberg also spent a couple of days resting after the accident. On Tuesday he went fishing on a lake with son Oliver and caught six fish. The pair then took them home, washed them and cooked them for their dinner. On Thursday the World Champion flew to the UK for a promotional Drive Day event. He flies to Japan on Saturday to prepare for the forthcoming event.
After Germany, Petter's team-mate Mikko Hirvonen returned to his hometown of Jyvaskyla to begin a new fitness regime that had set up in the previous week by the team's Human Performance department. The young Finn had been training daily, but took time out on Thursday to have a haircut. He mentioned it wouldn't be as severe as Petter's in Cyprus, but warned we may get a surprise! Look out for him at shakedown.
Rally Japan will be Mikko's third trip to Japan. "It's great to see all the Japanese fans", he told us. "It's always interesting to meet everyone, the people are really friendly and rallying seems really popular there. On my last trip I saw some amazing sights. Tokyo is completely mind-blowing, but I was also taken to some temples and waterfalls out in the countryside, which were beautiful. I'd recommend people try eating snake meat and there's also a sea animal that looks like a spider that's quite tasty. It's not like the reindeer meat I usually eat in Finland, but it's not bad at all - give it a go I think!"