Teams will swap the glamour of Monte Carlo for the cold, snow-bound forests of Scandinavia next week, when they start round two of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship, the Swedish Rally. Commencing on Thursday 10 February with a ceremonial...
Teams will swap the glamour of Monte Carlo for the cold, snow-bound forests of Scandinavia next week, when they start round two of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship, the Swedish Rally.
Commencing on Thursday 10 February with a ceremonial start in the university town of Karlstad, the event is the only pure winter rally in the series, but with drivers reaching speeds of up to 200kph, it is also one of the fastest. Cars run on narrow (135mm) snow tyres fitted with tungsten carbide tipped studs that bite through the icy surface and provide maximum traction. A key element of driving in wintry conditions is being able to use the snow banks, which line the side of the road. Drivers can 'lean' their cars against these on the exits of fast corners to help guide them round at maximum speed.
While it's not uncommon for temperatures to plummet to nearly minus 30°C during the event, full snow conditions on the event's 20 stages are not guaranteed. Mild conditions in recent years mean drivers have faced a challenging mix of road surfaces, including hard-packed snow, ice and gravel. Last year's event moved further north in an attempt to find more consistent snow conditions.
Like Monte Carlo, the Swedish rally is a specialist event, which favours drivers with experience of the frozen snow-covered roads. Until recently, local experts dominated the event, and Scandinavians boasted a 52-year unbeaten winning record. Things changed last year, however, when Frenchman Sebastien Loeb upset the record books by taking the win.
Following the start in Karlstad on Thursday evening, the three-day rally gets underway on Friday morning at 0735hrs when crews travel to the start of SS1. Including 20 stages and a competitive distance of 359.87km, the event will conclude when the winning car crosses the finish ramp back in Karlstad at 1504hrs on Sunday. The longest stage of the event is the 26.40km test at Lejen, while the shortest is the 1.86km Hagfors Sprint Super Special, which is used twice.
The Swedish Rally will be the first time that the Subaru World Rally Team has entered a three-car team since Rallye Sanremo 2002, when Tommi M?kinen, Petter Solberg and Achim Mortl represented the Japanese manufacturer.
Subaru's lead driver Petter Solberg has contested the event six times previously. Finishing third last year, and with experience of winter competition gained in his native Norway, Solberg is looking for another podium result this time in Sweden.
On his second rally with the SWRT, Stéphane Sarrazin will drive the other points-nominated Impreza WRC2004, while Subaru's latest signing Chris Atkinson will make his WRC competitive debut in a third identical car. Neither Chris nor Stéphane has competed on snow before, and both will be seeking to learn more about the unique event over the weekend.
"The main thing is to get some points now. The plan at the beginning is to aim for a podium position but after we've seen how Friday goes, we may change that. We'll have to wait and see. This rally has always been a bit difficult for me, but was much better last year. Although the overall result was a bit of a shame, I had a good feeling in the car. The testing we've done for this event has been very good and we're going to see if we can make any more improvements ahead of the start. You need to have a very aggressive driving style on snow because the tyres are narrower than normal. This is Chris' first event and I think he'll do well. I have a good feeling about his future as he has a good mentality. The team are doing an excellent job supporting both him and Stéphane."
"It's very exciting to drive on snow. I've done some testing and have a good feeling, but I'm still short on experience. I have a very good car, so it's good for me to learn and I'll try to improve during the rally. Driving on snow is more fun than on tarmac. Asphalt is very quick and you have excellent grip, but on snow you slide all the time and it's important to be very confident on your driving line. I hope to be fast, but I don't have any times to compare myself to at the moment, so we'll have to see after the shakedown. I know I need to push and improve my style, but I have very good car and that helps a lot."
"I'm really excited to have this opportunity. Even though it's only been a couple of months since my position was announced, it feels like I've been waiting for ages now - I want to start competing. The snow conditions are something that I think about of course, but I'll just be concentrating on getting overall experience during this event. The driving style on snow is not that different from driving on gravel, so it's not as much of a jump for me as people might think. The way you approach corners and the way to carry speed is similar, but you have to be more careful when braking on snow than on gravel, as you don't have the same amount of tyre on the road. It'll also be difficult because there are a lot of Scandinavians competing in World Rally Cars, but I'll be concentrating on improving each day. The key target is to get experience and to finish the event."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
"Although grip-levels with the competition snow tyres are higher than people would expect, snow and ice offers relatively low levels of grip compared to asphalt. In order to generate maximum grip the car needs to be run as soft as possible. On the other hand, Sweden is one of the fastest rallies of the year and includes lots of jumps, crests and dips and drivers like their cars to be fairly responsive, so there's a bit of a compromise to be found.
Tyre choice is also tricky. For performance it's good to run the tyre studs as long as possible, but depending on the weather, there can sometimes be patches of gravel exposed in the snow. As the ground is frozen it's very abrasive, not soft and loose, and the stones are bedded-in making it like concrete. That can rip the studs out, so again, it's a compromise. Shorter studs don't give as much performance, but don't get torn out, while longer studs give better performance, but less durability.
Teams are only allowed one tread pattern in Sweden, but we're able to alter the length of the tyre studs. The shape of the studs is fixed by the regulations, but the way they wear can even affect the performance. As the stud wears it changes shape, in some conditions getting better, in others worse.
If the weather is consistent and there's snow, the stage conditions are not so bad, but if it's mild, the stages can be very mixed. Normally, the drivers can use thick snow banks in Sweden as a nudge rail and so can be greedy with their speed. You can throttle hard on the exit of a corner and, as the bank stops you skidding off the road, you don't need to worry about running wide. This year, it looks like there's not much snow, so it will be tricky. If there aren't any snow banks, you can imagine what may happen.
While our aim is to get Petter onto the podium in Sweden, we're not looking at finishing positions for Stéphane and Chris. Our focus will be to benchmark them against some of the top drivers, set targets for them stage-by-stage and enable them to improve during the event. We want them to start conservatively until they feel they've got some confidence. But you don't learn anything driving a whole rally cautiously, so we'll want them to be exploring their limits by Sunday."
Between the Rallies
After completing the Monte Carlo recce, Chris Atkinson returned to the UK and has been spending time with his engineers at the Subaru World Rally Team HQ in Banbury and working hard training at the gym. Last week, to help his cold-weather acclimatisation, a determined Chris braved the British winter to run the eight miles to the gym even before starting his training session. On 31 January Chris got his first drive of the Impreza WRC2004, when he tested his Sweden car at a track in the UK.
Since confirming Denis Giraudet as his co-driver for the 2005 season, Stéphane and his new colleague have been working together to develop their in-car partnership. Denis spent a few days with Stéphane at his home, where the pair practised their pace note system and worked on their fitness by cycling on road bikes. Stéphane and Denis also visited the team's headquarters for seat fittings, meetings with engineers and some mechanical training. Stéphane said that after the sessions his wheel changes were getting much better - although he preferred to keep his exact time a secret.
A quieter time for Petter, who has spent the last two weeks at home with his family. Ahead of the rally he considers his home event, Petter has been keeping on top physical form with daily workouts and bicycling and is looking forward to meeting the crowds of supporters who traditionally flock to Sweden. At the last count, more than 350 members of his Norwegian fan club had booked seats on the Solberg tour buses.