Suzuki aims to shine on home ground
- 30th October 2008, 1:22pm
The penultimate round of this year's World Rally Championship marks an important occasion for Suzuki, as it is the first time that the SX4 WRC will be seen on its home territory.
The rally takes place on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, more than a thousand kilometres away from Suzuki's headquarters in Hamamatsu. But the event is still a source of great national pride for the Japanese team, and drivers Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson will be cheered on by hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic Japanese fans.
The event first joined the World Rally Championship in 2005, but this is the first year that it is based in the Olympic city of Sapporo, which hosted the winter games in 1972. The city is famous all over the world for its Dome - used in the 2002 World Cup - while Japan's challenging gravel stages are best-known for their speed and complexity. The roads, which are all-new for this year, tend to be narrow and are often characterised by fast straights leading into tight corners. With trees and ditches close to the side of the road, there is little room for error. The braking areas are particularly complex, as the drivers tend to arrive at high speed with little idea about the levels of grip and traction that they might encounter. The surfaces consist of soft gravel that can become muddy, a little bit like Argentina or Great Britain. The weather has a huge impact, with rain and cold conditions not an uncommon occurrence in Hokkaido, which is at the same latitude as Siberia in Russia.
The Rally Japan is due to get underway with a ceremonial start in Sapporo on Thursday evening before the teams go on to tackle 29 gravel stages totalling 343.69 competitive kilometres. The finish takes place back in Sapporo on Sunday afternoon. For more information: www.rallyjapan.jp/e/.
Car news - Suzuki SX4 WRC n.11 (Gardemeister) and n.12 (Andersson):
After two back-to-back asphalt events in Spain and Corsica, the World Rally Championship returns to gravel, the favoured surface for Suzuki's all-Scandinavian driver line-up of Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson. Nonetheless, many useful lessons have been learned from the pair of sealed-surface rallies that will have a direct relevance for this tricky gravel event, particularly as Rally Japan features many rapid direction changes. There has been a lot of work on the differential, to make the SX4 WRC more reactive, and the team has also had the chance to test a wide range of spring and damper settings.
In Japan, the SX4 WRC will run with a taller ride height and smaller brakes than are used on asphalt. However, the ride height is likely to be altered again for the second passages through the repeated stages, as the soft Japanese roads have a tendency to degrade. The recent emphasis at Suzuki has been on reliability, with both cars managing to finish every event since the mid-season break in July. This important work will be continued in Japan, but the team will also be looking to show some speed in front of its many home fans.
Both Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson come into Japan with not much experience of the event, each of them having only contested the rally once before. In Toni's case, this experience dates back to 2005, while P-G Andersson also contested Rally Japan in 2005, using a Suzuki Swift Super 1600. However, the drivers' previous knowledge of the event is largely irrelevant, as all the stages are completely new this year.
"Japan is a really difficult rally as it is so easy to make a mistake: a fact that many drivers have found out the hard way!" said Toni. "I don't really know what it will be like this year though. The key to doing well in Japan is to be very neat and precise, and try to never get off the line. I quite like it, because in some ways this makes it a bit similar to Rally Finland. One big difference though is that the roads are a lot narrower and the grip is much more inconsistent - or at least this was the case when I did Rally Japan in the past."
P-G Andersson's only previous attempt at the Rally Japan resulted in second place in class A6 with the Swift. He enjoyed the experience and the stages, and is keen to discover the all-new route this year. "I'm really pleased to get back to gravel," commented P-G. "It's my favourite surface and I think we can do well in Japan. We've done a lot of work on the SX4 WRC since the start of the year and now I think it is really starting to pay off. The stages in Japan require proper commitment from the driver, particularly under braking, so I think that they should suit us well. After Corsica my confidence is back now, so my target will be to do my very best and try to finish in the points for Suzuki at home."
The team's engineers and drivers now have to switch their way of thinking to gravel, less than three weeks after two extremely specialised asphalt events in Spain and Corsica. However, Japan is no ordinary gravel rally: it is also Suzuki's home event and so it is of vital importance. The whole team is determined to do the best job possible, so the two competing Suzuki SX4 WRCs will be checked and re-checked several times in the build-up to the rally.
Shusuke Inagaki, Suzuki World Rally Team Director, commented: "Japan will be a very big challenge for us as all the stages are new this year. However, we hope that this fact will benefit us, because it means that nobody will start the rally with a particular advantage in terms of experience. Our recent performances have underlined the encouraging reliability of the SX4 WRC, so we hope to use this to good effect on our home territory. The entire team has been working very hard to make solid progress, step by step, and we aim to see more improvement on Rally Japan."
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