Hallinta Hoop, 28.11.2008
Hallinta Hoop, 28.11.2008
This year's World Rally Championship draws to a close with the Wales Rally GB, held in the Welsh forests. Britain in early December always presents a spectacular challenge, particularly as the route of the all-gravel event has been significantly modified for this year. For the first time since 2001 competitors will visit the classic stages of mid-Wales such as Sweet Lamb and Myherin on the opening day of the rally, with a remote service halt in the market town of Builth Wells.
Taking place during the first weekend of December, the weather is likely to be a major factor. Rain and fog are a distinct possibility, with an outside chance of snow as well. The stages held in the early morning and late evening will be run entirely in the dark, providing yet another big trial for the competitors. Good night vision is an essential attribute, as well as the ability to see through fog, which can reduce visibility to fewer than 10 metres in places. However, one of the most demanding aspects of the event will be the constantly changing levels of grip from the wide variety of gravel surfaces found on the rally. The roads tend to get quickly covered by a layer of mud, but this mud is rarely consistent in the amount of adhesion it offers. Some corners become slippery and insidious, while others can still be taken flat-out.
Thanks to a number of rapid straights and sweeping bends, Wales Rally GB is an extremely quick event, with average speeds on some stages approaching those of the legendary Rally Finland. A number of hazards can catch out drivers who are unaware of the peculiarities of the terrain, so it helps to have accurate pace notes and some local knowledge.
The rally gets underway on Thursday night at 18:00 with a ceremonial start in the Welsh capital of Cardiff. The crews then face 19 stages of dramatic action, before the finish back in Cardiff on Sunday afternoon at 14:56. More information is available at www.walesrallygb.com.
Britain's round of the World Rally Championship will not only conclude the 2008 season, but also Suzuki's first full year of top-level rallying with the SX4 WRC. Suzuki heads into the event with plenty of confidence after securing its best-ever result at the previous round in Japan, with both cars finishing comfortably inside the top six to claim driver and manufacturer points. The SX4 WRC also continued its impressive run of reliability on the Japanese event: a good omen for the demands of the Wales Rally GB.
In fact, Rally Japan shares a number of characteristics with the British event such as high speeds, muddy roads and adverse weather. The useful work carried out in Japan will certainly help the Suzuki World Rally Team when it comes to Great Britain, an event that the manufacturer has contested before as part of the Junior World Rally Championship.
The SX4 WRCs will start off with the same base set-up as they had in Japan, benefiting from the latest evolutions to the suspension, dampers and engine. Depending on conditions, the drivers are likely to adjust the ride height for the second run through the stages - when deep ruts could form in the soft surfaces. As was the case in Japan, all the cars will use Pirelli's soft-compound Scorpion control tyres.
Scandinavians traditionally go well in the damp forests of Great Britain, and Suzuki's talented line-up of Toni Gardemeister from Finland and P-G Andersson from Sweden are no exceptions. Both of them love this rally, which historically marks the end of the season - and both are equally determined to finish the year in style. Toni, aged 33, knows Wales Rally GB well, having contested it eight times since 1996. He also completed a season of the British Rally Championship back in 1998, when he was serving his apprenticeship in the sport.
At 28 years old P-G naturally has less experience of these specialised stages but he has already taken part in the event four times, claiming the victory in the class for the Suzuki Swift S1600 on the 2005 event. Having just scored a career-best fifth overall in Japan, he is aiming for another solid points finish in Wales.
Gardemeister said: "Britain is a fantastic rally, but so difficult. It's very fast, which I like, and the stages are really interesting. Anything can happen on this rally, so a bit like Japan this is a very good opportunity for us. Reliability will be important but we have managed to achieve this since the middle of the season and we had another good result in Japan, so there's no reason why we can't do the same again. It's definitely possible for us to score some good points in Britain, and that is what we will be aiming to do from the start."
Wales Rally GB is one of only two events on the World Rally Championship - together with Corsica - where Suzuki has some previous experience of competing with the SX4 WRC. Last year the team entered a solitary car for test driver Sebastian Lindholm, on what was only its second-ever event. The SX4 WRC set some promising stage times, but this was purely a development run. One year on, the SX4 WRC is almost unrecognisable. Although some useful data was obtained from the 2007 event, there has been so much development on the car that it is practically a different machine. The bodyshell has been made lighter without compromising strength or stiffness, while refinements to the engine have improved both speed and reliability. Work on the suspension and differential has also enhanced the handling of the car. On the final round of this year's World Rally Championship, Suzuki will aim to capitalise upon all of the lessons learned in order to end the season with a strong result that will reward everybody's hard work.
Suzuki World Rally Team Director Shusuke Inagaki commented: "It's been an amazing and incredibly challenging season in which we have all learnt so much. I'm very proud of the team and all its efforts, which has resulted in a consistent improvement throughout the season. Now we face the final challenge of the year, which also happens to be one of the biggest ones. After an excellent result in Japan, we are all firmly focussed on finishing the season strongly in Wales!"