SWRT set for flying start as WRC battle recommences
After a six week break, Rally Finland heralds the return of the 2008 World Rally Championship with a bang. One of the most renowned events in the calendar, the Jyvaskyla-based rally is a heady mix of flat-out straights,
huge jumps that send cars airborne, and maximum commitment corners.
Demanding an acute knowledge of the route, putting even greater emphasis on pace notes, the prolific local entries are often the stars of the show. When Finland is your home rally, it is no surprise that Scandinavia has produced some of the greatest talents in world rallying.
Subaru World Rally Team star and Norwegian Petter Solberg is indeed one of these talents. He and co-driver Phil Mills set the stage record along the most famous of Finnish tests, Ouninpohja. Recording an average speed of over 130kph, this stage has however been excluded from this year's event on the grounds of speed and safety. Indeed, along with the Swedish Rally, Finland is one of the fastest of the year. A real gutsy challenge where the brave will top the timesheets.
Based from the town of Jyvaskyla, one of Finland's cultural hubs, the rally route winds through spruce forests archetypal of the region and skirts some of Finland's 60,000 mirror-smooth glacial lakes. Serene as it sounds, the landscape is unforgiving and wayward cars stand little chance of dodging rocks and trees to rejoin the rally.
Finland is only the third event for the WRC's youngest machine, the Subaru Impreza WRC2008, and the first time the championship will use the soft compound Pirelli gravel tyre. Having successfully completed its first two events, which were two of the toughest of the season, the SWRT engineers learned much that has been feverishly put to good effect during the championship break.
In contrast to the rough, rocky and inconsistent nature of both the Acropolis and Turkish rallies, the smooth, fast and flowing characteristics of the first non-European event since Rally Jordan in April make it a maximum commitment and confidence rally. Rather than an overriding onus on endurance and reliability in recent rallies, Finland marks a return to flat-out no-compromise competition right from the start.
The 2008 Rally Finland comprises 24 stages, of which five are new, totalling 340.42 competitive kilometres. The event starts with the traditional spectator stage at the Killeri trotting track on Thursday night. Run at the end of their summer, the temperature is expected to be around 20 degrees Celsius, milder than many would expect for northern Scandinavia.
The Subaru World Rally Team has entered two Impreza WRC2008s for Rally Finland. Petter Solberg and Phil Mills will drive Impreza number five, and team-mates Chris Atkinson and Stephane Prevot will climb aboard number six.
Solberg and Mills have competed in Finland seven times in Subaru WRC machinery, and having finished fourth, third and second over the years, they are hungry for a win. Atkinson has only tackled Finland four times before, his first being aboard a Group N Impreza STi. His best result of fourth position came last year on his first attempt at the event with Prevot as his co-driver.
David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal: "Finland is one of the true classic events and has always been a favourite of mine. From the days of Markku Alen, Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen the local drivers have excelled here and I expect this year to be no different, but I'm sure that Petter and Chris will be fast in the new WRC2008 as it is well suited to fast and flowing roads. Our work since Turkey has been fruitful and I'm confident that we go to Finland in our strongest position yet in recent years."
Paul Howarth, Subaru World Rally Team operations director: "Finland is a very fast event with generally hard base roads that can change massively if it rains. It's one of the highest speed events of the year so it's all about absolute precision and having 100 per cent confidence in the car. There can be tenths of a second per kilometre just in driver confidence -- it's paramount here as it's a high risk event with no room for error. It's the first time we'll use the soft compound Pirellis, but testing has all been positive -- it's not a hard rally on cars or tyres. We've done a lot with the car since Turkey but Finland will clearly tell us where we are in terms of performance."
Petter Solberg: "I'm looking forward to getting back out again after the break, you know. Finland is a good event, and one that we've gone well on in the past. It's not an easy event, as we have also seen in previous years, but for me it's a proper rally. Fast, flowing, blind jumps, and so many crazy fans! I hope we'll have good pace there and can get another strong finish in the new car. The team have been working hard since Turkey and doing lots of testing, and we all feel that good steps forward have been taken."
Chris Atkinson: "I definitely want to get back into competition, so I'm looking forward to Finland. We've done a lot of testing since Turkey and the guys have learned a lot, so I hope we can make some good steps in fine-tuning the car. Finland is a rally of big risks and you have to push hard right from the start to get a good result. We've seen some good and close battles here in the past, and I hope we can be up there this year. It's a great event. The terrain gives the rally a great character, and with the huge support of the fans, it's one of my favourites. It's definitely the rally everyone wants to win most."
Between the rallies
In the six week break since Rally Turkey, the team have been busy. Test driver Markko Martin gave the Impreza WRC2008 its first tarmac test at the end of May, in preparation for the three asphalt events in the latter half of the season.
Chris Atkinson travelled to his native Australia immediately after Rally Turkey for two weeks of PR activities with Subaru Australia. Petter Solberg meanwhile took the opportunity to rest and spend time with his family before heading to the pre-Finland test, where he and Atkinson had two days each in the car.
The Goodwood Festival of Speed followed, where Solberg, Atkinson and Martin each drove for one day. Solberg gave the ride of a lifetime to British TV star Alan Davies, whilst Atkinson enjoyed the company of the fastest man on earth, Andy Green OBE.
Ahead of what will be a very busy month of August, Solberg and Atkinson will also conduct a Rally Germany tarmac test, the first time they will have driven the car on asphalt, to cap off a busy six weeks.