The Event This week the FIA World Rally Championship will swap the French Riviera for the snow-bound forests of southern Scandinavia when it heads to Sweden for round two of the 16-round series, the Swedish Rally. The event, commencing with a ...
This week the FIA World Rally Championship will swap the French Riviera for the snow-bound forests of southern Scandinavia when it heads to Sweden for round two of the 16-round series, the Swedish Rally. The event, commencing with a ceremonial start on Thursday 2 February from its base in the small university town of Karlstad, is the only true winter rally in the WRC.
While it's not unusual for temperatures in the area to plummet to minus 30C at this time of year, full snow conditions are by no means guaranteed. Last year the event was run in relatively mild conditions, giving a real mix of road conditions, including snow, ice and sections of frozen gravel.
The Swedish Rally remains a specialist event that demands a totally different approach from other rallies. With top speeds approaching 200kph, the ability to use the snow banks is essential and drivers ‘lean' their cars against them on the exits of fast corners to help guide them round at maximum speed. To increase the grip, cars are run on narrow snow tyres fitted with tungsten carbide tipped studs that cut down through the icy surface to provide maximum traction. Local knowledge of the conditions still counts for a lot though - in fact only one non-Scandinavian driver has won the event in the last 53 years.
Following the start in Karlstad on Thursday evening, the competitive action gets underway on Friday morning at 0650hrs with a 10 minute service before the first of Leg one's six stages. The rally includes 19 special stages and a competitive distance of 349,02km, four stages fewer than 2005. The total route is also 300km shorter this year. The event will conclude on Sunday at 1502hrs when the winning car crosses the finish ramp back in Karlstad.
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two Impreza WRC2006 cars in the Swedish Rally. Having contested the event seven times in previous years, Petter Solberg finally achieved his dream of winning the rally he considers his ‘home' event last year. He is aiming to repeat the win this year.
Chris Atkinson will drive the second car, his first competitive outing in the Impreza WRC2006. Chris made his Swedish Rally debut last year, his first rally with the Subaru team.
"At the moment it's very exciting to see how the car and set-up perform in competitive conditions. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to show how good the car was in Monte Carlo, but the feeling is good. I hope we have a good chance to get the same result as last year in Sweden. This would just be brilliant as there will be a lot of people I know and a lot of support from Norway. I view this rally just like Rally Japan - as my home event."
"We're obviously looking forward to the Swedish Rally, as it's one of the most enjoyable rallies of the year for a driver. However it's still a specialist event and although we'll be aiming for a good result, we'll still have to tread carefully. This will be my first rally with the new car, although I got a good feel for it when we tested in Sweden earlier this year. I'm quite happy with the performance but we've got a lot more learning to do. For this rally, a realistic goal is to get in the top six. There will be a lot of local drivers who know the conditions and roads well, however we'll aim to be towards the front."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Performance Director,
"In many respects, the hardest part is preparation. This is the only rally of the year that takes place in full snow conditions with winter temperatures to match and there is a lot of work that's exclusive to just this event, for instance, making sure that components and seals work in the low temperatures and don't ice up. Bizarrely enough, overheating is a big problem in Sweden as the radiator can become blocked with snow. A few degrees above or below zero can make a huge difference to the conditions and since teams are only allowed to test for four days, you'd need to be very lucky to experience every eventuality. In this case, we draw on the experience of previous years.
To add to this, the tyres we use in Sweden are completely unique and, in reality, we prepare a range of tyres for just this rally. The tyres are very tall and narrow with long studs, which stick out from the tyre by as much as 8mm. This gives much more grip than you would expect on snow, but the car is still much less precise and doesn't respond as quickly as when it's on slicks on tarmac. On the other hand, it's much more forgiving and you can put it into lovely long slides, steering mostly with the brakes and the throttle. Great fun, once you relax!
The challenges of this rally are compounded as the conditions of the road can vary massively. The hardest point is if there hasn't been any snow or ice and the gravel is showing through - it can rip the studs out of the tyres and if you lose them there is a big impact on performance. When you start to lose studs, you start to lose grip as 90% of it comes from the studs, not from the tyre itself. Temperatures have got relatively mild in recent years, so we could see the patches of gravel showing through again this year. In fact Petter won the rally last year as he looked after his tyres better on the stages where there was a lot of exposed gravel.
The average speed of the rally is quite high: at approximately 120kph it's probably the second fastest after Finland, but the top speed can reach 200kph in places where they're flat out in sixth gear. The grip level from tyres is much higher than you would expect, but still relatively low compared to every other rally so you end up compromising the high speed slightly and running the car reasonably soft, looking for grip.
Petter's goal this year is to win the rally. As far as we can tell from the variable conditions in Monte Carlo, we're pleased with the new car's performance. There are so many different factors in that event - tyres, conditions, driver - that it's difficult to draw absolutely objective conclusions about the cars. From what we could see, and from our analysis of split times and knowing who's on which tyre at what time, we think we're very competitive. Chris has one year's experience of the rally behind him, but he's not a Scandinavian so he hasn't grown up on snow and ice, and a podium could be asking a lot. He can, nevertheless, make the top six, as he showed last year that he can go fast when conditions are predictable. He can't seriously challenge the experienced Scandinavians, but he will be close."
Between the Rallies
Since the close of Rallye Monte Carlo Petter Solberg has been spending time relaxing with his family - but this hasn't been a holiday! Petter has been looking through statistics from Sweden last year in preparation for this year's event and training to be on top form for the harsh Swedish weather. Petter then flew to Sicily to join the test team for two days of development work with the new Impreza WRC2006.
When we spoke with Chris Atkinson he was sitting in the back of the Subaru World Rally Team test truck in Sicily where the team were developing the new Impreza WRC2006. Chris flew directly to Sicily after the end of the Monte Carlo rally to observe the test and learn more about the handling and performance of the new Impreza in advance of his first competitive outing in the car in Sweden. To get over to Sweden, Chris was hoping to find a spare seat on Petter's plane…