The Event The 2005 FIA World Rally Championship returns to Europe next week when crews start the fifth round of the 16-event series, Rally Italia Sardinia. Previously hosted in the Italian Riviera town of Sanremo, last year the event moved to...
The 2005 FIA World Rally Championship returns to Europe next week when crews start the fifth round of the 16-event series, Rally Italia Sardinia. Previously hosted in the Italian Riviera town of Sanremo, last year the event moved to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia where sandy gravel tracks replaced twisty, asphalt stages. Commencing on Friday 29 April, it will be the first of four consecutive hot gravel rallies.
In 2005 Rally d'Italia undergoes another change as it moves from an autumn date to spring. Run in the spectacular mountain landscape of the north east of the island, the character of the rally will remain largely the same, featuring technical, medium width roads covered with fine, almost sandy, gravel. Weather conditions are expected to be mild, but with some stages taking crews to altitudes of more than 800 metres above sea level, some rain is likely.
Over the years Subaru has enjoyed a good record of success in Sardinia. Back in 1994, Piero Liatti scored the Group A Impreza's first-ever international win on the island's Costa Smerelda Rally, which at that time was a round of the Italian and European Championships. Juha Kankkunen and Markku Alen also recorded wins on the same rally, while on last year's debut WRC event, Petter Solberg led from start to finish.
Following a ceremonial start in the exclusive holiday resort of Porto Rotondo on Thursday evening, the competition will begin on Friday when crews contest the first stage of the event. Based in the port of Olbia, the rally includes nine repeated stages, based to the south and west of the host town, plus one other, to make a competitive distance of 350km. Seventy-five per cent of the route will be new for 2005 and the event will conclude when the winning car crosses the finish ramp in Porto Rotondo at 1430hrs on Sunday.
Subaru will take a three-car team to Sardinia. The latest specification Impreza WRC2005's will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills), Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn MacNeall) and Stephane Sarrazin (co-driven by Denis Giraudet).
After winning two of the first four rounds of the 2005 FIA WRC, Petter Solberg leads the 2005 drivers' series. Last year, he and Phil dominated the Italian event and were fastest on 13 of the rally's 19 stages to finish 2 minutes 7.9 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. Petter will be looking to achieve another strong podium finish on this year's event. Driving the second nominated Subaru car will be Australian, Chris Atkinson, while Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin will be seeking to gain experience at the wheel of his Subaru Impreza WRC2005 on his first WRC gravel event with the team.
New Zealand was a good rally for us and, although we struggled a little on the second pass through the stages, I'm pleased with the final result. Sardinia should be a very good event and I think we have a strong chance of winning it if everything works out well. It's a different rally to New Zealand as it's more narrow and twisty and that, along with the temperatures, is better for the tyres. I'll be running first on the road again, but that's the price you pay for leading the championship so I'm not complaining!
"It was good to get a couple of stage wins in New Zealand this early on in my WRC career. Although we didn't maintain the speed all weekend, I think we learned a lot and made some changes that will help us in the future. The stages in Sardinia are a lot slower and narrower than those in New Zealand and that means it'll be even more important not to make mistakes. Narrower stages mean it can be easier to go off the driving line, hit a rock and take a wheel off. But it's a rally where Petter and the team worked well last year, so that's promising. We're aiming to run at a consistent pace all weekend and, if we can reach the same speed that we did on the first day in New Zealand, to keep that up all weekend. That way the end result could be good. Between rallies we're evaluating lessons that we've learned on each event and using that information to move forward before the start of the next, it's going well."
"I've spent some time testing the car on gravel and the feeling is very good. It was my first time on a loose surface and I'm happy with what we've achieved in a short time. It's good grip on gravel - better than I thought, and things seem positive. The driving style is only slightly different to tarmac, so I'm not modifying things too much. I'm just thinking about starting the recce next week and am planning to give my maximum. It's the first gravel rally for me so I'm going to be concentrating on learning, progressing and getting experience. I have a very good car, but it's all still very new to me."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
"The overall nature of the Sardinian event will be quite similar to last year. There are a lot of new sections and some of the narrowest, trickiest places have gone, meaning the route's probably a little bit more open. Generally though, the stages are akin to those used in 2004 so it's still a fairly twisty rally, with sandy surface stages that are quite difficult to read.
In terms of air temperature and rain statistics, it's likely to be a little cooler with a little bit more rain than in September 2004. The other thing that's different is that we're looking at stages after a long winter, rather than after a long summer. The effect of rain at this time of year is more dramatic as the ground cannot soak up large quantities of water. It's already damp underneath so will be likely to remain wet for longer. If it rains in September, the rain soaks away quickly and is gone in an hour.
We learned a lot about which tyres work well in Sardinia last year. Obviously it was a bit of an unknown to us, but it turned out that the preparations and testing we'd completed beforehand had been good, and that was confirmed during the rally. That gives us a lot of confidence regarding tyre choice this year. It seems that Pirelli had an advantage, but as we didn't have any benchmarks it's difficult to know how much of the credit should have gone to the tyres and how much to Petter and the car. This year, it will be interesting, with two other teams running on Pirellis, to compare Pirelli and Michelin and also Peugeot, Subaru and Mitsubishi.
Looking to Petter, he'll be continuing to balance his desire to win every rally with his Championship aspirations. Sardinia is one of his favourite rallies of the year and one where a win is very much on the agenda. If we're in a strong position we'll try to win the event, even if it involves a small level of risk. However, if we were in a position where it would involve a high level of risk then we need to think abut the Championship. Scoring six or eight points is a lot better than getting zero.
Chris is following exactly the same story as the previous event; it's a new rally for him and his goal is to put himself into a position to learn as much as he can, to be able to win the rally next year. Stephane is focused on learning about driving on gravel and we're not setting any performance goals for him. It's more about development targets, learning about pace notes, learning about gravel tyres and getting a feel for a gravel set-up. He'll be competing on three gravel rallies this year and, after those, he needs to be able to compete with the best drivers in the world on a loose surface. In Sardinia he'll be concentrating on his notes and gaining experience. The first thing he needs to do is just drive a championship distance on gravel and experiment with tyres because that's obviously something he's not much experience of yet."
Between the Rallies
After returning from New Zealand, Petter Solberg ventured out on his snow scooter for a two day, 300km trek with his wife Pernilla and her family. The following week, he went quad biking and gave some swimming lessons to his three-year-old son, Oliver. Petter will complete some testing with the team over the weekend before arriving in Sardinia on Sunday evening.
On his journey from Auckland to Brisbane, Chris stopped off for a couple of business meetings in Sydney, but once back home all efforts were channelled into catching up with friends and working on his fitness-training programme. Although a mechanical problem prevented Chris hitting the waves on his jet-ski, he's hopeful members of his service crew can help him figure out where the problem is. Chris arrived in the UK on Wednesday 19 April for some meetings with the team, while on Friday his rally training in the UK will be the focus of a television feature. He's set to arrive in Sardinia on Sunday evening.
Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin has been using the time since his last WRC outing in Sweden to prepare for his first gravel rally. He's been working closely with new co-driver Denis Giraudet, training on his bike, playing tennis and running, as well as spending time with his family and friends. After driving on gravel for the first time at a team testing session earlier this week, Stephane will spend the weekend in Switzerland before flying to Sardinia on Monday.