The Story of the Subaru World Rally Team Impreza WRCs

steve spackmanCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2009

I see the red taillights blazing, I hear the distinctive thrum from the flat-four boxer engine, I feel the whoosh of wind as Petter Solberg deftly maneuvers his Subaru Impreza WRC2008 around a tight hairpin by jabbing at his car’s handbrake.

The mud now spraying in every direction, the spectators are not deterred in the least. All eyes are focused on the bright blue hatchback dancing towards the horizon, making the zigzagging road that lies ahead magically straighten out. The Norwegian driver snatches second gear, then third, then fourth, as he rounds a sweeping right turn bend to disappear out of sight over a rise.

This is five seconds in the life of one of this sport’s most enduring and respected machines: The Subaru Impreza WRC car.

For 2008, the Subaru World Rally Team was faced with the daunting task of reeling in the Citroen C4 WRC and the Ford Focus RS WRC cars, with the aims of regaining the coveted Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ Championship titles. Without even a moment’s hesitation, Solberg at a press conference ahead of the 2008 season stated that his sole aim is to win the Championships for Subaru.

It reminds me of an interview in 2007 where Solberg was asked how important rallying with Subaru is to him. His response went something like this: First Subaru rallying, family, and then everything else. This man’s blood is Subaru blue.

In 2008, Solberg was partnered with Phil Mills, while Aussie Chris Atkinson and Stephane Prevot piloted the second Impreza WRC car. The 2008 season with its 15 rounds was to prove a difficult year for all teams and competitors.

Not only was Subaru demanding much success from its mighty impressive Impreza WRC2007, but it was also spending large sums of money (and, more importantly, man hours) into developing a new rally car, the WRC2008, to reflect the Japanese motor manufacturers’ new-generation Impreza.

Producing sound results and showcasing the team’s championship winning potential, Solberg and Atkinson proved there was life yet in the ageing sedan-shaped Impreza WRC car earlier in 2008. When the new war machine was debuted at WRC Rally Greece, it was immediately quick out of the box, recording a podium result in its competitive debut.

The Subaru World Rally Team was once again on course to resume battle with Citroen and Ford.

With bucketloads of determination, motivation and talent, the two SWRT drivers, Solberg and Atkinson, once again brought pride to the Japanese motor manufacturer in 2008 with a string of impressive results in their all-new Impreza WRC2008.

The potential for rally-winning success was great in 2008, and after a strong showing in the closing rounds of the WRC season, it became more evident the Subaru Imprezas were fast gaining lost ground to their rivals. Unfortunately, an international economic downturn saw Subaru dramatically withdraw from the World Rally Championship on Dec. 16, only a few days after it had confirmed its entry for the 2009 season.

This abrupt end concluded what has been a hugely successful 19-years in top-flight rallying, because through rallying, Subaru has made itself a household name.

The Impreza world rallying story begins in 1993, when a Prodrive-designed rally version of the company’s new road car was unveiled. Dubbed the Impreza 555, this Group A car took off where the Subaru Legacy rally car left off; for the Legacy’s final competitive outing, it claimed its maiden victory on the Rally New Zealand in August 1993.

With figurative big shoes to fill, the Impreza did not disappoint. In fact, were it not for a windscreen demisting problem on the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland (just two weeks after the Legacy’s win in New Zealand), Ari Vatanen would most certainly have stormed to the finish well ahead of his rivals. The demisting problem cost him dearly, though, resulting in him finishing in second place overall.

Interesting to note is that the Impreza sedan was designed to be rallied from the outset. As early as 1990, at the design stage, Prodrive was invited to provide input in order to make the Impreza a car suitable for the world’s rallying stages. And it has, over the years, more than proved its prowess on gravel, asphalt, and snow.

It did not take the Subaru World Rally Team long to notch up its maiden win with the Impreza; on the Rally Greece in 1994, the Impreza 555 defeated all other teams to take first place. Continual development and fine-tuning saw the Impreza become a true force to be reckoned with, a serious contender for the world championship.

One of the highlights of that season, and for rallying, was Prodrive’s experimentation with an automated gear change system, which was the forerunner of the now-essential steering wheel-mounted paddles.

Testament to SWRT’s hard work on the Impreza, Carlos Sainz kicked off the 1995 World Rally Championship in the best way possible with an emphatic victory on the classic Rally Monte Carlo. The season developed into a straight-out fight between the two Subaru drivers, Colin McRae and Sainz.

In a ding-dong battle, it was McRae who triumphed to lift the WRC Drivers’ Championship trophy, and Subaru romped home with the Manufacturers’ Championship title.

The sport’s governing body, the FIA, was due to institute a raft of new regulations for the 1997. To get a jump on their rivals for ‘97, SWRT concentrated their efforts on developing a new car to take full advantage of the new rules.

However, in true Subaru fashion, this did not distract from their ambition of winning more rally championships in ‘96: McRae finished runner-up in the Drivers’ title fight and the team won the Manufacturers’ trophy again.

For 1997, the FIA created the WRC Class cars; wider, lower, more powerful, revised suspension geometry, and wilder aerodynamics were hallmarks of the cars. The Impreza WRC97 was the first of the new breed of rally cars to break cover and compete, and still remains one of the sports most iconic machines ever. What was Subaru’s reward? Yet another Manufacturers’ title for the swelling trophy cabinet.

The ‘98 WRC season saw an updated WRC97 compete. As in 1996/1997, Subaru pumped its resources into their 1999 model, which is considered to be the start of the technological era in the WRC. Prodrive and Subaru engineers worked tirelessly on the interaction and also focused on the adjustable parameters of the automated controlled systems in the car.

As such, it was the year in which the paddle gear shifters were used in competition, as well as the debut of fly-by-wire throttle technology in rallying, thanks to Subaru and Prodrive.

This blue beast evolved into the WRC2000, and was to be the last of the classic two-door shaped Imprezas. In fact, 80 percent of the 2000 WRC season car was new. 2001 brought an all-new look for the car, but was similar under the skin to the WRC2000.

The Impreza adopted the four-door body shell and closely resembled the STI road car version. This new body shell design proved to be a whopping 250 percent stiffer than the WRC2000s, with the result that Colin McRae was able to steer his car to his second WRC Drivers’ Championship title.

The updates, and momentum, was carried through for 2002, while 2003 saw the SWRT dominate the WRC. Petter Solberg claimed the WRC Drivers’ Championship in the Impreza WRC2003.

Even with controversial front-end styling (which was not to everyone’s taste), the Impreza remained a firm fan favorite through 2004 and 2005. SWRT’s quest for perfection gave rise to arguably one of the best WRC cars to date, the Impreza WRC2005. Up against the Fords and Citroens, the Impreza fought tooth and nail at each event helping to bring the WRC properly into the mainstream media.

And this battle royale between the manufacturers resumed in 2006 when Subaru launched a new version. This car was reportedly heavily revamped to meet the strict FIA rules and regulations. WRC cars’ drive trains and chassis had to be used on at least two rounds of the WRC, and the FIA even monitored teams’ use of spare parts.

Updated and facelifted for 2007, the Impreza WRC2007 was to be the last sedan-shaped WRC car, ending a long heritage of four-door sedans doing battle around the world’s toughest roads.

Fans of the brand, team, and charismatic drivers will have to suffice with reruns of pre-2009 events to satisfy their Subaru lust. Or they can just reread this article.


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