The Subaru World Rally Team will head to the northerly Japanese island of Hokkaido for the last long-haul rally and the penultimate round of the 2008 World Rally Championship season. It is the first time that the new Impreza WRC2008 will be seen in its homeland. Whilst still in Hokkaido,
this year sees the rally base move from Obihiro to Sapporo, meaning new gravel stages and a whole new challenge.
“We come to Rally Japan this year with a new car and big expectations on what is effectively our ‘home event’” said David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal. “The change of location for the rally may well prove to be a leveller between the front runners but it’s always been an event that throws up surprises and there’s every chance that both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles could be settled on this rally.”
Rally Japan is Subaru’s home event, and will be where the fans are most feverish about the team and the new Impreza WRC2008. Even before Subaru gained global recognition with their early world rallying triumphs, the brand has held a special place in the hearts of Japanese fans. Like previous editions of the rally though, this year will be no easy ride.
Rally Japan has traditionally been a punishing event; a rally of attrition. Since the inaugural event in 2004, the event has been won by four different manufacturers and four different drivers, including Solberg’s victory in that opening year. This year marks the first time the rally has been run outside of Obihiro, and whilst the stages are totally new to all but Japanese National Championship competitors, the stern challenge remains.
“It’s a completely new event for us and the drivers haven’t done the recce or driven the stages before” said Paul Howarth, Subaru World Rally Team operations director. “We’re expecting quite low temperatures, but it’s been 20 degrees Celsius this week so it’s hard to know exactly. It’ll be as tricky as any Rally Japan though, especially the second passes of the stages where it’ll get very rutted. When you get rutted roads you don’t know what surprises you’re going to get as the cars could pull rocks up from beneath the surface, and because the roads are narrow these rocks won’t be swept to one side away from the line.
“Rally Japan has got a bit of everything; it’s got medium-fast, slow and high-speed sections, up and down hill gradients and a new superspecial stage on tarmac. It’s very unique, and hasn’t got any one particular characteristic. The drivers are not going to get a real feel for the conditions until they actually do the first stage because the shakedown is run on the superspecial stage and therefore is on tarmac.
“The conditions and the nature of the rally will be pretty similar to the event in past years, as they’ve all had a mixture of everything” Howarth continued. “We’re also going to be running in the dark, so it’s the first time since GB last year that the drivers will have done so. That’ll throw up some challenges as the second passes of stages are those that will be dark, so you’ll have the tricky, rutted conditions and the darkness combined.
“The ruts are where you can really make or lose time. If you’ve got a lot of confidence and can really commit and hold the line, then you’ll be very fast. We haven’t driven in these wet conditions on gravel with a low ambient since Rally Argentina earlier this year, and there is a championship fight on as well which could be decided in Japan, so it’ll be a very challenging event.”
"Rally Japan is a special event for me and for Subaru” Petter Solberg said. “My message to the Subaru and WRC fans in Japan is this: please look forward to this rally! We have been shifting our focus to gravel performance for Japan and GB and developing a setup that will get the best from the car in these conditions. Just like when I won Rally Japan in 2004, I will head to Japan thinking of nothing but a victory.
“Even though it’s all new, the fact that I’ve been to Japan so many times before should be an advantage for me. Japan is my second home. The Japanese rally fans are so enthusiastic, and it is a very important rally for Subaru and for me, so I know the fans will be great at cheering us on!"
Chris Atkinson shares his team-mate’s sentiments: "Though the stages are new and the rally has moved to Sapporo, experience shows that I like the narrow high speed stages of Japan which are similar to Finland where I scored my last podium this year.
“I was the first Australian driver to stand on the podium when I scored my very first podium here on the 2005 Rally Japan so I have some good memories. It also tells you that we can perform better when the average speed is faster. It's an important rally for us and the team, and I'm looking forward to it. It's the team's home and everyone there is a huge Subaru fan!”
Rally Japan consists of 29 stages, 11 of which are spectator-focused in the form of the Sapporo, Imeru and Nidom tests. Sapporo is the fifth largest city in Japan, and the rally HQ is based within the Sapporo Dome. The route totals 344.72 kilometres of competition to the west of Sapporo on day one into the Yubari and Mikasa regions, and to the south towards Chitose and Tomakomai for days two and three. Pirelli’s soft compound Scorpion gravel tyre is the only available choice for WRC crews.
The Subaru World Rally Team has entered two Impreza WRC2008s for Pioneer Carrozzeria Rally Japan. Petter Solberg and Phil Mills will drive number five, and team-mates Chris Atkinson and Stéphane Prévot number six.
Solberg and Mills won the first running of Rally Japan in 2004. Atkinson scored his first ever WRC podium on Rally Japan in 2005, becoming the first Australian to stand on the WRC podium. He finished fourth in 2006 but was sidelined after an accident last year.
Between the rallies
In the two weeks since Rallye de France Tour de Corse, Solberg/Mills and Atkinson/Prévot have been busy testing. They completed a day each on gravel immediately after the rally in Corsica, followed by another day each in the UK in preparation for Japan.
In the workshops, the Spain/Corsica cars have been stripped and the two Impreza WRC2008s that will be used in Japan have been prepared and made ready for air freight. In this case, the cars can be transported ‘complete’, which means just removing the driveshafts and water/anti-freeze before they fly.