Petter Solberg in action in Sweden Next week the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) moves from the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo to the snow-covered scenery of Scandinavia for the second of the 16-round series, the Swedish Rally. Starting on ...
Petter Solberg in action in Sweden Next week the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) moves from the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo to the snow-covered scenery of Scandinavia for the second of the 16-round series, the Swedish Rally. Starting on Thursday 5 February from its base in the university town of Karlstad, the event is the only true winter rally in the WRC.
While it's not uncommon for crews to compete in temperatures as low as -30°C, full snow conditions on the event's 19 stages are by no means guaranteed. In recent years mild conditions have presented teams with a challenging mixture of road surfaces, with everything from hard-packed snow, ice and sections of frozen gravel. As a result, this year's event is moving 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 unique conditions. Totally unlike any others in the WRC, the snow covered Swedish stages have to be approached in a different way to the more typical WRC tarmac or gravel stages. Local knowledge counts for a lot, and it's telling that since the rally was first run in 1950, it has been won exclusively by Swedes and Finns.
Experts at 'leaning' their cars against snow banks to guide them round corners, previous winners of this demanding event have been highly skilled at driving on studded tyres at very high speeds. Last year, with an average speed of 118kph, the Swedish rally was the second-fastest of the season. Only Finland, with an average of 122kph was quicker. To cope with the snow conditions, both Subaru drivers will be using slim Pirelli tyres fitted with tungsten carbide tipped studs to help bite through the loose snow and get maximum traction.
Following a ceremonial start in Karlstad on Thursday evening, the rally begins in earnest on Friday morning when crews travel 85km north to the town of Hagfors and the central service area. On Leg One they will tackle five stages, including Granberget, which at 52 kilometres is the longest of the event. Saturday will see the drivers contest a further eight stages, before the final six tests on Sunday. The winning car is expected to cross the finish ramp back in Karlstad at 1638hrs on Sunday.
The 555 Subaru World Rally Team will be entering two cars in the Sweden Rally: Petter Solberg, the current World Champion has contested the event five times previously. Having finished in the points last year, and with experience of winter competition gained in his native Norway, Solberg is looking to improve on his best Sweden finish of sixth.
Driving the second Subaru entry will be Finnish driver, Mikko Hirvonen. Having finished eleventh last year on his first attempt at the Swedish event, the Finn will be aiming to finish in the top ten and gain further experience in an Impreza WRC.
"I've stopped thinking about Monte Carlo already. It was good to have got some points in the bag, but my focus is Sweden now - 100 per cent - and I'm really looking forward to it. It's the closet event to my home country and so there's going to be a hell of a lot of Norwegians there, even more than there were in Monte I think! It's going to be an interesting event, the Sweden test went well and I think I've worked out why I didn't do so well last year - but I'm not saying just yet! We have an improved tyre for this rally and the setting of the car has been changed, I think it'll be a good event."
"Monte Carlo was good for me. I gained so much from the event, got to know all the people in the team and saw how it all worked. The atmosphere in the Subaru service area felt good and that will definitely make it easier for me from now on. I'm learning all the time about the car, picking up small things about how it handles on ice, snow and tarmac etc. and that is building my confidence. It's a case of the car becoming part of you and I'm definitely feeling part of the car now, so it's good. I finished the Sweden rally in eleventh position last year, and coming from nearby Finland I'm used to driving in snowy conditions. We'll have to see what happens. I'm not thinking about the result so much, but I'm going to push, try to do as well as I can and get some points for the team."
The Car / The Challenge
Team Principal, David Lapworth:
"The Sweden Rally is an extremely fast event, with speeds much higher than you would expect in such wintry conditions. The Swedes and Finns that have traditionally dominated this event, but history shows that the top rally drivers can adapt very quickly to the specialist conditions too. The first time that Carlos Sainz competed in a Subaru in Sweden he regularly set top three stage times and last year Sebastien Loeb set a fastest stage time very early on. That said, in Petter Solberg and Mikko Hirvonen we have two Scandinavian drivers that are very talented on this type of surface so we see that as an advantage.
For Mikko, we'll be approaching Sweden in a similar way to Monte Carlo. It's all about experience for him now and ensuring that he strikes a balance between getting mileage under his belt and testing himself. We want a fast, reliable driver in Mikko, not a slow, reliable one, so we're ensuring he works on both things and strikes a balance. For Petter, his strategy is to score some points for himself and the team.
Looking to the car, we'll be using the tried and tested Subaru Impreza WRC2003 in Sweden. We completed a pre-event test in January and made some good progress with the set-up and the tyres. There's currently full snow conditions in Karlstad and we know the Pirelli tyres are very strong in those so it's looking good."
It's been a busy week for Petter Solberg. Travelling directly from Monte Carlo to Spain on Monday, the Norwegian met up with the 555 Subaru test team to begin testing the Subaru Impreza 2004. Petter completed a full day of testing on Tuesday, the first time he had ever sat at the wheel of the new car, before getting up at 0530hrs the next morning to travel back to Norway. His plan for the coming weekend was to take a well-earned rest and do nothing more than sleep and train in preparation for Sweden.
Mikko Hirvonen has also been keeping busy. The Finn spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday working on his new apartment in Jyvaskyla with his cousin. The pair redecorated a room adding wood panelling to one half, and white paint to the other. The plan was to make it a 'man's relaxing room'. Mikko will be travelling out to Sweden on Monday to join the team and begin preparations for the forthcoming event.