The FIA World Rally Championship heads to the Far East for the eleventh of the 16-round series. Rally Japan, the Subaru World Rally Team's home event, is based in the city of Obihiro on Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan's islands, and takes ...
The FIA World Rally Championship heads to the Far East for the eleventh of the 16-round series. Rally Japan, the Subaru World Rally Team's home event, is based in the city of Obihiro on Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan's islands, and takes place from 1 to 3 September. As the only round of the WRC to take place in Asia, Rally Japan usually attracts hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the continent. Last year over 200,000 people attended the three days of competition, while the ceremonial start alone drew 52,000 spectators.
Rally Japan is a highly technical event with narrow, loose gravel stages which run through dense woodland on the edge of the vast Tokachi plain that stretches inland from the Pacific Ocean. Each Leg will be a grueling test for crews with up to 10 stages per day, ranging from short, twisty 3km sprints to fast, flowing roads more than 34km long. With stages separated by long liaison sections, drivers can be on the road for over 12 hours a day.
Changeable weather is as much a feature of Rally Japan as the long days. Although Obihiro is protected by two mountain ranges, it lies in the path of Pacific weather systems which bring high winds and torrential rain to the island. This year's rally takes place in the height of the typhoon season and it's highly likely that heavy showers will fall each day, leaving the soft ground saturated with water. With some stages used four times, the roads will become heavily rutted as more cars drive through.
This year, the route features 27 stages, one more than in 2005. Changes for this year include a new Superspecial on the edge of the service park that will be used five times during the rally and once as the shakedown stage, while the mammoth 50km Kunneywa-Niueo stage has been broken into three shorter stages. After a ceremonial start in central Obihiro on Thursday night, the first competitive stage of the rally begins at 0803hrs on Friday 1 September. The podium finish is scheduled for 1500hrs at the Kita Aikoku service park six kilometres south of Obihiro.
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter one Impreza WRC2006 for Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and one car for Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Toshi Arai (co-driven by Tony Sircombe) will also drive an Impreza WRC2006.
Petter Solberg makes his third Rally Japan appearance this year. Petter won the inaugural WRC event in 2004, however his 2005 rally came to a premature end when, with a 22secs lead, he hit a rock on the penultimate stage of the rally.
Chris Atkinson first contested the rally in 2003 when it formed part of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. The Australian has an excellent record in Japan; in 2004 he won the Super 1600 class and in 2005 he achieved his highest-ever WRC finish when he secured third position. The result was the first time an Australian had finished on a WRC podium since 1992.
Toshi Arai competes in his home rally for the fourth time this year. Like Chris, the Japanese driver has an excellent record on the rally; at the wheel of a Group N specification Subaru Impreza, he has won his class every year he's entered.
"I enjoy Rally Japan a lot, it's always been a good rally for us, but this year I don't want to make any predictions. Let's start, get into a rhythm and go from there - we need a good finish. Ideally it would be on the podium - if we're lucky and everything on the car works okay, we should be more than capable of doing this. It would be a great result for all of the fans there; it's definitely a boost for a driver to have that kind of incredible support."
"Rally Japan is Subaru's home event so it's a big rally for the team. We did well there last year, and I enjoy the narrow, fast, tricky roads, but it could be difficult to get that result again. We've made some steps forward with the car, now it's all about getting to the stage where we're consistently on the pace. We shouldn't underestimate the task we've got in front of us but, all the same, we'll be doing our best to get a good result for the Subaru supporters."
"I'm very excited about competing in Rally Japan with the Subaru World Rally Team. I know the team well - there are still the same faces, although some of them have moved up a level since I was last here! There's quite a lot of pressure as it's my home rally and my first time in a WRC car since 2001, so the goal for me will be to get a good finish. Realistically we'll be aiming for a top five position, but if we get there and one of the top three has a problem, you never know, we could be on the podium."
The Car / The Challenge
SUBARU WORLD RALLY SPORTING DIRECTOR, LUIS MOYA:
"Our record in Japan so far has been good; we've either won or led by a large margin. This year, however, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve. We were encouraged by the step forward in performance in Finland, particularly by Chris' times on Sunday, but it will be a tough event. Petter has a good chance of a podium, which would be very satisfying for the army of Subaru fans we expect to be there, while Chris's pace in Finland shows he's capable of achieving a similar finish to his 2005 result. Of course we look forward to welcoming Toshi Arai back to the team for the first time since 2001; it will be very interesting to see him perform on his home rally in a WRC car."
SUBARU WORLD RALLY TEAM MANAGING DIRECTOR, RICHARD TAYLOR:
"Japan is Subaru's home market, and also its largest market, so the team has a massive focus on delivering a strong performance in front of the local fans, staff and business partners of Subaru who come to Hokkaido for the rally.
Despite a gap of only 96 hours between the end of Rally Finland and the dispatch of parts and cars by airfreight to Japan, the team is currently running a four-day test in Sardinia targeted at both long-term development and finding further performance improvements. We hope these findings can be applied to all three cars before they attack the first Japanese stage next Friday.
The weather forecast suggests there will be increasing rainfall throughout the rally week in the Obihiro region, which means tyre choice and tyre performance will be critical to success. The last two years have demonstrated that the Subaru Pirelli package is the best over the difficult Japanese stages and the team is confident of once again mounting a strong challenge in 2006."
Between the rallies
No rest for team drivers Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson who went directly from Finland to Sardinia for a four-day development test. Petter drove for two days while Chris followed the test as an observer. The two will fly to Japan on Saturday 26 August to attend a press conference in Tokyo on Monday 28 August.
Since Toshi last drove for the team in 2001, he has competed in the Production Car World Championship with considerable success. At the wheel of a Subaru Impreza he finished second overall in 2003 and 2004 and won the title in 2005. This year Toshi won the Group N class of Rally Mexico and lies third in the current PCWRC standings.