Less than a week after the Swedish Rally, the Subaru World Rally Team has moved west across the border to Norway for the second part of the World Rally Championship's snow-bound double-header.
Norway is hosting its first-ever round of the WRC, to the great delight of homegrown Subaru driver Petter Solberg and his army of enthusiastic supporters, who will brave the freezing temperatures in their thousands to cheer on their hero. The event has support from both the Norwegian Royal Family and the Prime Minister, and has already attracted huge interest from the country's 4.7 million inhabitants.
It is also a significant event for the Subaru World Rally Team, because it will be the final rally for the Impreza WRC2006 before a new version of the car - the WRC2007 - is introduced for Rally Mexico in March.
Although the events in Sweden and Norway take place only 200 kilometres apart, there are some key differences between the two rallies. Whereas the stages in Sweden were fast and flowing, the rally route in Norway will be much more tight and twisting. Most of the stages are situated in the forests in the agricultural region of Hedmark, and although some tests were used during the non-championship Rally Norway last year, much of the route has been revised and extended now that the event has gained WRC status.
Servicing of the competing cars will take place inside the Viking Ship, an arena which was built for the 1994 Winter Olympics. The facility, which is shaped like an upturned vessel, will provide some welcome respite from the elements for the Subaru World Rally Team's technicians, who had to endure temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius as they worked at the Hagfors service area in Sweden last weekend. But conditions on the special stages could be even tougher than in Sweden, because February is traditionally one of the coldest months of the year in Norway. Some snow is forecast during the forthcoming week and an average temperature of minus 15 is anticipated.
After a ceremonial start in Hamar on Thursday night, the inaugural Rally Norway begins in earnest at 0743hrs on Friday. The event is made up of 18 special stages and the total route length is 1109.57km (355.99km competitive and 753.58km (liason). Leg One's stages take place to the south-east of Hamar, and the day's route includes a Remote Service Zone at Kirkenaer, about 75km south of the rally's base, Legs Two and Three both comprise tests to the east and north of the city. On Saturday and Sunday the crews will tackle some varied terrain including a demanding 24km section simply called Mountain and also a short blast through a stage in the city of Hamar itself.
The Subaru World Rally Team heads to Sweden with the same brace of Impreza WRCs that started both the Rallye Monte Carlo and the Swedish Rally. Petter Solberg/Phil Mills will drive car number seven, while Chris Atkinson/Glenn Macneall will be in car number eight. Although the new WRC rally represents a step into the unknown, both crews took part in the recce for last year's Rally Norway, which ran as a non-championship event. Petter won the Norwegian Rally Championship in 1998, but has never driven the Rally Norway stages competitively.
Richard Taylor, Subaru World Rally Team managing director: "As in Monte Carlo and Sweden, our objective for Rally Norway is to get both cars home in the points. Chris has driven very well to score points in the first two rallies of the season and we'd like to see him finish in the top six this weekend. For Petter the aim is to be in the top five at the end of his home event, although for him we'd like to think a podium finish is not out of the question if conditions are in our favour. Our experience in Sweden was that the car worked particularly well with the studded BFGoodrich tyres when there was a lot of snow and ice on the stages and the forecast for Norway is for more of those conditions. We were pleased with the pace of the Impreza WRC in Sweden and if we can turn that into consistent speed in Norway, it should put us in a good position."
Petter Solberg: "It's going to be a very special event for me. Already things are building up ahead of the rally, there have been lots of press interviews in the last two days and people I know are arriving here for the event. I won't really have a home advantage because I have never seen these stages before. It is completely new for me, as it is for all the other drivers. It felt positive to lead in Sweden and we showed that especially when the stages are covered in lots of snow and ice we can set fastest stage times. So we need those conditions and have to hope there is not too much gravel showing through when we use the stages for the second time. It's going to be incredible to see all the fans supporting me and the team. It's difficult to say much about how I will feel about it until I get out on the stages, but I'm looking forward to it so much."
Chris Atkinson: "I have some idea what to expect because we did the recce for Rally Norway last year, although many of the stages we drove have been reversed this time. I think it is going to be a pretty exciting rally, because the stages were great last year, although a lot more technical than those in Sweden. There was a lot of snow and ice and some of the snow banks lining the stages were as much as two metres high, so it was like driving through a tunnel. We were quite happy with our pace in Sweden against some drivers who have a lot more experience of that event. In Norway everyone should be on the same level in terms of knowledge of the stages. Our approach to this rally will be the same as in Sweden: we'll start steadily and gradually build our pace. Hopefully we'll get the fifth or sixth place we should have had there."
Between the rallies
There was little time for the Subaru World Rally Team drivers to relax in the four days between the end of the Swedish Rally and start of round three of the World Rally Championship, Rally Norway. The team traveled from Karlstad to Hamar on Monday and Petter, Phil, Chris and Glenn are due to recce the Norwegian special stages tomorrow (Tuesday).