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Subaru rally driver Chris Atkinson takes a step into the unknown this weekend at Rally Germany when he puts his new Impreza WRC2008 through its paces on tarmac for the first time.
But the Australian goes into the event with new confidence after his strong third placing at Rally Finland just two weekends ago. The result, easily his best from his three starts in the new car, lifted him to 37 points and third place in the championship, trailing only Sebastien Loeb (67) and Mikko Hirvonen (66).
Last year in Germany, Atkinson demonstrated his ability on asphalt by winning three stages and setting four further top-three times from the 19 stages contested. But even after two days of testing, the Gold Coast driver admits to being unsure as to what lies ahead this weekend.
“We were fast in Germany last year, but this year we have a new car on new tyres and it’s the car’s first rally on tarmac, so it’s hard to know where we are speed-wise,” Atkinson said.
“The test there (on tarmac) went well, and if we can carry the same form we had last year it would be good.
“It was great in Finland to get a podium as our first points-score with the new car, as it does build confidence – the more time you spend in the car the more confident you get with it.
“We will go there pushing hard and get a gauge of our performance, and then see how we go from there, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Richards, is well aware of the significance of the test ahead.
“Germany will be an important rally for everyone as it will set the tone for each teams’ performances on the remaining asphalt rounds of the Championship in Spain and Corsica,” Richards said.
“It’s even more crucial for us as it’s the tarmac debut for the new Impreza, but testing has been very encouraging. Petter (Solberg) and Chris have traditionally been fast in Germany, and we now have the experience of three rallies to build on.”
The event is based once more in the western-German city of Trier in Germany’s Moselwein region. The rally is an incredibly varied affair; not your normal clear-cut asphalt event. It is a blend of fast, but narrow, vineyard tracks normally more used to hosting the local farmers’ tractors, and wide and dirty military roads where the cracked and worn asphalt is very abrasive when dry, or incredibly slippery when hit by rain.
SWRT operations director, Paul Howarth, knows that some aspects of the weekend will be outside of his team’s control.
“The weather is very hard to predict in the region, and it’s very easy to get caught out on a stage in a rain shower, which completely changes the characteristics of the roads,” Howarth said. “If someone makes it through a stage in the dry, but it rains for the rest of the field, even on only a portion of the stage, it can make a huge difference to the overall standings.
“This event is lethal in the wet as the roads are coated in shiny tar on which any water just sits, making it incredibly slippery. It’s also very fast and very narrow in the vineyards, mostly one car width wide, so lines and precision are critical.
“We’ve seen in the past that it’s so easy to make a mistake here. Generally, once underway it’s not hard on the cars, so it’s all about drivers keeping their noses clean, avoiding spins and going off,” Howarth said.
“The Panzerplatte stage on day two is especially unpredictable on grip; if dry it’s phenomenally hard on tyres as it’s concrete, and if wet it can be hard to get heat into the tyres and is very slippery.
“On the wider military roads it is very hard to find the right line as they are so wide, and the Hinkelstein are designed to lay out the course for slow-moving vehicles, so it’s a compromise at high-speed. It’s the first time we’ll be using the hard and soft compound Pirelli tyres, and on day two we’re back to remote services.”
For the most part, the stages are the same as in 2007, so the drivers will be treading familiar ground. The 19 stages total 352 competitive kilometres, and are preceded by a ceremonial start at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Trier’s Porta Nigra on Thursday night. The event is brought to a conclusion with a spectator stage in the same location.
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