Hallinta Hoop, 7.10.2008
Hallinta Hoop, 7.10.2008
The Rally de France-Tour de Corse is a significant event in the history of the Suzuki World Rally Team, as this is where the SX4 WRC made its World Rally Championship debut exactly one year ago. On that occasion, a solitary development car was driven by asphalt expert Nicolas Bernardi from France. Now Suzuki is back with two cars in its first full season of rallying at the highest level, driven as usual by experienced Finn Toni Gardemeister and his young Swedish team mate P-G Andersson. Plenty has happened since Suzuki took its first steps with the new SX4 WRC last year, but if anything the challenge has grown even bigger.
Corsica has been nicknamed 'the rally of 10,000 corners' in the past, and it is easy to see why on looking at the sinuous mountain stages. The island event is characterised by narrow and bumpy asphalt roads, with hairpin bend after hairpin bend. There are also frequent surface changes, as old and broken-up asphalt is often interspersed with newer tarmac. These varying surfaces mean that levels of grip and traction are constantly changing on the 'island of beauty', as the locals call it. Throughout October the weather in Corsica can be extremely unpredictable, with rain showers and fog a frequent occurrence at high altitude.
The key to success in Corsica is commitment, as the narrow and spectacular mountain roads are extremely intimidating thanks to some big sheer drops down to the sea. Accurate pace notes are essential in order to precisely describe the differing characteristics of the road ahead. The event gets underway with a ceremonial start on Thursday night in Ajaccio - the birthplace of Napoleon - but the real action starts on Friday with the first of 16 special stages. The event finishes on Sunday afternoon back in Ajaccio, just after the longest stage of the rally.
Coming just after the Rally de España, the Suzuki drivers and team will arrive in Corsica with some firm ideas about the correct asphalt set-up. They will be helped by the fact that this year's Catalunya route was more similar to the roads in Corsica than usual, but there are still some important differences. For example, the Corsican stages tend to be quite bumpy - which means that the shakedown on Thursday morning will be vital in establishing the correct settings for the suspension and dampers. The stages in Corsica are also generally slower and more tortuous than those found in Spain, and this will have a distinct impact on the differential mapping, braking, and cooling.
Recently the SX4 WRC benefited from some evolutions to the differential and suspension, which should make a difference in Corsica. This rally is also the first of only two events where Suzuki has some previous data to refer to. However so much has changed on the SX4 WRC since it made its debut in Corsica a year ago that it is almost a different car. Recent work has concentrated on optimising the reliability of the SX4 WRC, and this important process will be continued in Corsica.
Although Scandinavians are better noted for their skills on gravel rather than asphalt, both Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson have extremely fond memories of Corsica, one of the most awesome events of the entire World Championship calendar. Gardemeister's last participation saw him finish second overall in 2005, while Andersson clinched his second Junior World Rally Championship title with Suzuki on the island one year ago.
The 33 year-old Gardemeister has the most experience of Corsica out of the two of them, having competed there five times already. Andersson has just one participation behind him from last year. However, the route has not altered significantly since 2007, so both drivers should be able to put their previous knowledge to good use.
"Corsica is a rally that you need to know well," said Gardemeister. "I've always liked it, although it's important to find a good rhythm straight away. The most difficult thing about it is the fact that the asphalt is always changing and that you can never guess what the weather will do. I know the roads quite well, and it will be interesting to see what sort of difference it makes to the team to have competed there before. The problem we have is that the opposition will be very tough, as asphalt is usually a less forgiving surface than gravel. But if we maintain our good reliability, then I don't see why we can't score some points."
Suzuki has made a lot of progress on asphalt, and the priority on the final sealed-surface event of the year will be to consolidate all the lessons that have been learned to date. Adding to the challenge is the fact that Corsica is the very first back-to-back event that the team will face. As soon as the Rally de España finished on Sunday, the trucks and personnel headed straight to Corsica to re-prepare the two SX4 WRCs in time for the rally start.
Shusuke Inagaki, the Suzuki World Rally Team Director, commented: "Doing Corsica straight after Spain is a big challenge for us logistically, and it is also hard work for all our people. On the other hand, it means that we do not lose the momentum we have built up, and Corsica is also one of only two events where we have previous experience with the SX4 WRC. We have made many changes to the SX4 WRC since we started and are feeling confident with the progress we have made so far. The goal will be to build on everything we have learned and continue to improve the car, step by step."