Next week teams will travel to the Americas for the second time this season to contest round eight of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally Argentina. Starting on Thursday 15 July with two sprints round a Super Special stage in the host town ...
Next week teams will travel to the Americas for the second time this season to contest round eight of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally Argentina. Starting on Thursday 15 July with two sprints round a Super Special stage in the host town of Carlos Paz, the rally will be the sixth consecutive gravel event of the season and marks the halfway point in the 16 round FIA Championship.
Run on the edge of the Pampas and in the hills close to the city of Cordoba, Rally Argentina is often cited as the most beautiful rally of the year. Breath-taking scenery and numerous water splashes make for spectacular viewing and every year tens of thousands of fans flock to the stages to cheer on their favourite rally drivers.
For the drivers, the event is characterised by high-speeds and fluctuating conditions. Loose gravel stages high in the mountains combine narrow, twisty sections with flat-out roads and numerous surface changes. One of the highest events of the year, many stages are more than 1,000 metres above sea level and weather conditions can be unpredictable, changing rapidly with little warning. In the wet, the loose gravel surface can be exceptionally slippery, while current winter temperatures can fluctuate between 20°C and below freezing.
Comprising three legs and 382.63 competitive kilometres, Rally Argentina includes 26 stages. Leg one is run to the north of Carlos Paz, near Le Cumbre, while Legs two and three offer a mixture of stages, both north and south of the host town. This year the event will see a return to the stages near El Condor in Leg three, which peaks at 2,153 metres above sea level. The longest test, the Ascochinga stage at 28.83km, will be used for SS4 and SS8, while the shortest, the Super Especial Complejo Pro-Racing Super Special at 3.02km, will be used six times as SS1, SS2, SS11, SS12, SS20 and SS21. The winning car is expected to cross the finish ramp at 1638hrs on Sunday 18 July.
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Argentina, which will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen).
Petter has competed in Argentina four times and has scored points on each occasion. He finished second in 2002 and is looking to improve on that this year. Finnish driver Mikko Hirvonen contested the Argentine event for the first time in 2003 when he finished 16th. This year he will be aiming to secure Championship points, while gaining further experience of the event in his Impreza WRC2004.
"Argentina is a special rally, very difficult because there are so many different types of road, it's twisty, narrow, fast and the surface is constantly changing too, there are water splashes and maybe even ice in the morning. I think it's going to be one of the most challenging rallies of the year, especially as we have just 25 tyres to use, so the choices we make will be crucial. The rally is in a different month this year and conditions will be very different to those we saw last time. I think the final day will be the most interesting - the one where anything can happen. It's good to get the El Condor stage back, it's just the most unbelievable scenery when you're driving up the mountain, there's often fog in the middle, and then you carry on climbing up right through until it clears again. It's a very cool stage. I've never won in Argentina before, it seems that the drivers with the most experience have previously done the best there, but this time I think it's about time for me and I'm going to give it everything I've got."
"This year it's difficult to know quite what to expect in Argentina, the change to a winter date will make the character of the stages very different so I'm prepared for pretty much anything. I've heard there's even snow on some stages, so perhaps there'll be some icy or slushy conditions elsewhere. Many of the stages included this year are ones that weren't used last time, so they'll be new to me. El Condor is coming back, and I've been told it's an incredible road, so I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do there. The stages tend to be much faster than those on the last few rallies and although I feel my performance on the slower sections has improved I still feel most at home on the fast stuff, so I'm looking forward to next Thursday."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
"The strange thing about going to Argentina in July is that we'll be going to a winter event having spent the last two months in European summer conditions. July is the depths of winter in Argentina, so we're going from plus 40°C to possibly below 0°C. We've done the rally at this time of year before and know that the weather can be anything from 15°C, blue skies and dry to rain, sleet and snow. With this year's return to the high stages on El Condor, we're likely to see some cold, damp and perhaps even icy conditions.
Fortunately for us, our Pirelli tyres work very well in cool temperatures and Petter seems to thrive in tricky conditions and on changing surfaces, which is all part of the recipe in Argentina. That said, it's a very difficult event to predict and the new tyre rules makes things even harder. We can no longer go armed with a whole spectrum of tyres and have to gamble much more on the long-range weather forecast.
As one of the highest events of the year, it will be the most versatile driver that will win the event. Conditions in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey are more easy to predict and more constant, but Argentina is a real challenge and a driver has to be able to adapt his driving style very quickly. Even in stable weather conditions there's a large contrast between stages and so in unpredictable weather conditions, the differences can be vast. In addition, the new winter date means the water splashes are likely to be higher this year, which can be damaging to the cars. There is sometimes a temptation for drivers to hit the long fords at high speed, but at 120kph it's almost like hitting a brick wall, which can result in broken bumpers and other more serious damage.
Looking to the Subaru drivers, we're entering the second half of the season and if we're analysing things from a Championship point of view, then we have to capitalise on our strengths. Sebastien Loeb was very good in Turkey, but I still think that Petter's got the edge on the gravel events so we need to focus on that and go to Argentina to win. We intend to push from the beginning, but will also be keeping one eye on the mirror to see what happens to other drivers such as Sebastien. For Mikko, this is an event that he has done before and has experience of. From now onwards we'll be starting to look less and less at mileage and experience and more at different aspects of his skills and speed."
Between the Rallies
Straight after Turkey, and accompanied by John Mills of the Team's human performance department, Mikko returned to Finland to begin working on a new physical training programme. Under John's guidance, and with the assistance of a local Finnish coach, Mikko now has a comprehensive training regime designed to maximise his strength and fitness levels. After a few days of working out, Mikko flew from Finland to Japan for a four-day promotional trip to announce Subaru's participation in this September's inaugural Rally Japan.
No time for a home visit for Petter, who flew from Turkey to the UK and spent a day at the SWRT headquarters before heading to Wales for a two-day gravel development test. Testing on forest roads in Powys, Petter drove almost 200km to check new suspension parts and evaluate a host of other development components. Testing completed, Petter jumped on a plane to meet Mikko in Japan.
When they arrived on Tuesday 6th July more than 520 journalists and media representatives gathered for a close-up glimpse of their Subaru heroes as Fuji Heavy Industries put on a special outdoor show. In blazing sunshine, 35 degree-heat and typically humid conditions Petter and Mikko gave demonstration runs in a WRC Impreza and the complete range of Subaru road cars on a tight and twisty circuit constructed in the Harumi district of central Tokyo.
Mikko particularly enjoyed his time behind the wheel of Subaru's new city car, the R2. "They'd painted it to look like a miniature rally car" he explained, "It was metallic blue with gold wheels and the full rally livery. It looked fantastic and was good fun to drive around the cones, a bit more body roll than the rally car, but not bad at all."
Mikko stayed in Japan for a couple of days longer than Petter and has since been shown around the Subaru production line in Gunma, as well as an ancient Japanese temple at Nikko and some of the other sights of the region. Meanwhile Petter flew back to the UK on Thursday in time to put on his best suit and attend Team Manager Paul Howarth's wedding on Friday.