Hallinta Hoop, 26.9.2008
Hallinta Hoop, 26.9.2008
The Rally de España is the fastest asphalt event of the entire World Rally Championship, with fast, sweeping stages that are often reminiscent of a racing circuit. The pair of Suzuki SX4 WRCs will use a ground-hugging asphalt set-up in order to cling to the road and find the quickest line through all the corners, which vary hugely in speed and radius.
The Rally de España, formerly Rally de Catalunya, is now a classic event on the World Rally Championship, but it has only been based to the south of Barcelona since 2005, presenting the drivers with a new collection of stages. The route now runs around the coastal resort of Salou, with rally headquarters situated in the well-known Port Aventura theme park. Even the rollercoasters that thrill the holidaymakers are tame compared with the spectacle of state-of-the-art World Rally Cars blasting over the challenging Spanish stages. The surfaces are on the whole smooth and quick, but there are also some slower and bumpier older roads. Accurate pace notes are a must in Spain, as the racing line must be described as precisely as possible to shave off the vital tenths of a second that make the difference between winning and losing.
The Suzuki drivers have been encouraged by a promising initial performance on asphalt from the SX4 WRC, which is still in only its first full season of competition. On the last tarmac round in Germany, Toni Gardemeister scored a valuable manufacturer point - and the SX4 WRC indicated that there was plenty of asphalt potential still to come. Rally de España however is extremely different in character to Germany, although it holds the same promise of uncertain weather conditions. With Europe now in the grip of autumn, the rain in Spain is a distinct possibility.
The SX4 WRC will start with the same base set-up that it utilised in Germany just over a month ago, but with a lower ride height and stiffer springs. Getting the set-up right is vitally important, because the car settings in Spain are just as critical as they would be for any Formula 1 Grand Prix. However, the car cannot run too low as this would risk damaging the sump while cutting the corners: an essential ingredient to success in Spain. The flat-out speeds and reasonably high altitudes test engine strength to the maximum, but there are also many areas of heavy braking that challenge the brakes and cooling system.
A particular risk of corner-cutting is the possibility of punctures, when the vulnerable tyre sidewalls scrape the sides of the roads. The rocks and stones within the corners can also be a source of problems. With the previous two asphalt events in Monte Carlo and Germany providing a very different type of challenge, Spain will once again be a whole new adventure for the Suzuki team and the SX4 WRC.
The Rally de España is one of the rare events where P-G Andersson actually has more knowledge of the conditions than his experienced team mate Toni Gardemeister. The 33 year-old Gardemeister has contested five Catalunya rallies in total, but only one in the current area around Salou. Andersson has already competed on the Salou stages twice, claiming a win in the Junior World Rally Championship class last year. For both drivers, Spain will be an important warm-up for the Corsica Rally - which takes place only a week later.
Gardemeister said: "I've not driven the Catalunya Rally since 2005, so I don't really know what to expect. It's an event that I like, but it's not always liked me in the past! For some reason we've often had little problems on this rally that have prevented us from getting a good result. It won't be easy because we have many opponents, but if we have a good level of reliability I think that we can score points."
The Rally de España will be only the SX4 WRC's fourth-ever asphalt outing, so the team has plenty to learn on the rapid stages. However the potential shown from previous sealed-surface rallies has been very promising, with Gardemeister's SX4 WRC scoring a manufacturer point on the last asphalt round in Germany.
Logistical planning for the Rally de España has been extremely complicated, as the cars and equipment will move straight from Spain to the next round in Corsica the moment that the rally finishes. The team has had to pack enough spares and equipment to cope with both events, although extra supplies can be flown into Corsica at the last minute if needed. This will be the first time that the Suzuki team embarks on a pair of back-to-back events, representing another important step in the learning curve.
Shusuke Inagaki, the Director of the Suzuki World Rally Team, concluded: "Catalunya will be a very difficult rally for us, as it is extremely fast and there is a lot of strong opposition. The priority will be to sustain the level of reliability we have recently shown and try out some new asphalt settings, which will be extremely useful when we move on to Corsica just one weekend later. After Germany we came up with a few ideas as to how the car could be improved on asphalt. In Spain we will now have the chance to see if those ideas will work.