On the first weekend of October the Subaru World Rally Team will travel to Spain with three works entries as the World Rally Championship returns to tarmac. RallyRACC Catalunya Costa Daurada is the penultimate tarmac event of the year and the first half of a back-to-back asphalt double-header on which SWRT will be running a trio of Impreza WRC2008s for the first time.
Rally Catalunya is often said to be the closest the WRC gets to a circuit race, owing to its smooth and flowing asphalt surface. Most of the rally route has been resurfaced over the years making the roads clean and grippy, in contrast to the dirty asphalt of the last sealed surface event in Germany in mid-August.
“There are lots of long, long corners in Spain on very smooth tarmac so grip is good and speeds are generally quite high” said Paul Howarth, Subaru World Rally Team operations director.“This means the lateral loads on the cars and tyres are also very high. The rally is all about rhythm, and very early on it will be obvious if anyone hasn’t got settled.
“We are in the Tarragona region so we don’t go up into the hills where the rally used to be, which means that pretty much all the route is fast to medium-fast. We have a mixture of hard and soft compound Pirelli tyres, which will have to be strategically used to account for the sudden rain showers that can change everything. With our focus on gravel development, we haven’t been able to do a pre-event test here so there’ll be a bit to learn.”
This sentiment is shared by the team’s technical director, David Lapworth, who is eagerly anticipating the significant step forward in development that two asphalt events in two weeks will undoubtedly facilitate.
“These two tarmac rallies in two weeks will boost us massively, as we learned a great deal just from Rally Germany” he commented. “We’ll be using a combination of Markko’s base setup from his early tests and improvements we have been able to make after Germany to take another step forward on tarmac.
“We are very happy with testing so far, and the conditions in which Markko did all the early tarmac testing are far more similar to the roads in Spain than those in Germany so it should suit us better. We have had limited testing here though as a result of our focus on gravel development to date, so at the same time we must be realistic about how far through our refinement process we are with the new car.”
It has been one month since the last rally in New Zealand at the end of August, and Solberg and Atkinson have been making best use of that time.
“I’ve been preparing myself to the maximum since New Zealand, and I hope we can build on what we had in Germany” said Petter Solberg. “I really had good fun driving there, so I definitely hope we can have even more fun in Spain. It won’t be easy, but it’s a rally I like and the route is fun to drive anyway.
“Spain is a very different rally to Germany with very different roads, a lot cleaner and more flowing, but if you can drive, you can drive, so it’s not that big a change. We’re always driving flat out anyway, so you don’t do much different inside the car. It’ll be an important rally though as it’ll go a long way to deciding the result in Corsica the week after.”
Chris Atkinson echoed the Norwegian’s comments: “Spain is a very different event to Germany, where we were last on tarmac. The roads are wide, smooth and high-grip, and you can carry a lot of corner speed because of this. It’s about the highest lateral load we get all season, and whilst it doesn’t really affect us because we train for it, you notice it for sure inside the car. Because it’s smooth it gets very slippery when it rains as the water doesn’t run away, but when you get a series of corners right, it’s a great feeling.”
Alongside the works entries of Solberg and Atkinson, SWRT will run a third factory car for both this rally and the next round in Corsica. Impreza WRC2008 number 15 will be driven by Frenchman Brice Tirabassi, and the 2003 JWRC Champion is keen to get behind the wheel of a works Subaru for the first time.
“I am very happy to be taking part in these two events with a team of this level” commentedBrice Tirabassi. “I don’t have much experience of driving a WRC car, but I know both events quite well so I am looking forward to getting going. I like Spain, so I hope this means I can focus more easily on learning the team and the car. My objective in Spain is to understand the car better and find the limit, and carry all this into Corsica the week after.”
The rally itself is based in Europe’s largest theme park, PortAventura, in the holiday destination of Salou, which lies 110 kilometres south-west of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast.
Rally Catalunya is scheduled in the region’s spring season, and whilst generally pleasant and popular with holidaymakers and rally fans alike, the weather can be notoriously changeable. Temperatures are expected to rest between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius, but rain can soon form as clouds crest the surrounding mountains of the Tarragona region and the inclement weather builds. On the smooth roads, sudden storms can easily flood the surrounding drainage systems and make grip levels very treacherous.
The organisers have made several changes to the stages since last year, with the inclusion of two brand new speed tests on Saturday. A total of 18 stages, including the renowned El Montmeil and La Serra d’Almos sections from previous years, take crews through 353.62 kilometres of competition after a ceremonial start on Thursday night that, typical of the destination, is just metres from the ocean.
The Subaru World Rally Team has entered three Impreza WRC2008s for RallyRACC Catalunya. Petter Solberg and Phil Mills will drive number five, and team-mates Chris Atkinson and Stéphane Prévot number six. Number 15, the third Impreza WRC2008, will be piloted by Frenchmen Brice Tirabassi and his co-driver Fabrice Gordon.
Between the rallies
The championship took a four week break between Rally New Zealand at the end of August and Spain at the start of October. During that time, Solberg has been training hard, including lots of karting with his family, but he has also been getting restless. “I don’t like waiting” he says, “I just want to drive”.
Atkinson travelled to Australia after Rally New Zealand for a few days of PR activities and to spend time with his family, before returning to Monaco and training hard for a busy month of October. Tirabassi has also been preparing for his first works World Rally Championship drive with SWRT.