Solberg the showman ready to put smile back on the face of rallying

Norway's former world champion struggled last year, but the Subaru driver is confident he can now match Citroen and Ford, starting in Monte Carlo today. By Derick Allsop
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The swagger, the beaming smile and infectious enthusiasm are back, and if he is half as good as his word, Petter Solberg will be in the thick of the World Rally Championship contest this year. Even his staunchest rivals would have to concede that is a welcome prospect.

Sébastien Loeb is perhaps the most complete rally driver there has ever been and Marcus Gronholm is a worthy adversary who shows no sign of losing his competitive instinct. Solberg brings another dimension that has been conspicuously missing in the recent past: he is the showman, the extrovert. He craves centre stage in the certain knowledge the gallery will fall for his irresistible charms.

The decline of Subaru's fortunes since Solberg won the championship in 2003 has inevitably dragged him down the bill. Last season the team slumped to their nadir, failing to deliver a single win.

The Norwegian, never one to suppress his emotions, was scathing or apologetic, depressed or philosophical, according to the extreme mood swing of the day. Now, at the dawn of a new season, he prefers to look back on 2006 as a cathartic experience. It will, he contends, make him all the stronger.

Importantly, he believes he will have the car to banish those frustrations, at least from the fourth rally, when the latest evolution of the Impreza is due to be pressed into service. Otherwise, he maintains, he would have given up.

"I've been waiting for this season like a child," said 32-year-old Solberg, counting down to this evening's start of the Monte Carlo Rally. "Last year was terrible, but as in any business it can be good for you to go through something like that.

"This year will be different. I am going to be the hunter. The new car will be a big, big step forward. I'm going to start winning rallies again. You can trust me on that, 110 per cent.

"I'm back in business. I am in this to compete for the championship. If I wasn't sure of that, I wouldn't be driving. I would have quit."

Solberg's confidence is founded on not only the potential of the revised car but also a switch to BF Goodrich tyres, ensuring a level playing field, and deficiencies he perceives in the opposition, Citroën and Ford.

Loeb, champion for the past three years, admits he has not yet fully recovered from the broken arm that kept him out of last season's final four rallies and although Citroën have returned as a factory team, testing of the new C4 has confirmed that the Xsara was a tough act to follow.

"Maybe Loeb will have a little bit of a struggle with the new car and not be quite as fast as he was with the Xsara," Solberg said.

Ford, led by Gronholm, won the 2006 Manufacturers' Championship with the new Focus and justifiably feel they have the momentum to take both titles this time. Solberg offers a different perspective.

"The new Focus is a good car, but I can't say I was so impressed with Gronholm. I thought he would have been quicker than Loeb on more rallies and given him a fight for the championship.

"I'm sure they will both be strong this year but so will we and that is good for the championship. Nobody wants it to be easy for one driver. The sport needs competition."

That sentiment is echoed across the WRC spectrum. The sport has had more facelifts than an aging Hollywood actress in its endeavours to seduce the disenchanted back to the fold.

Monte Carlo's latest botox is not for the squeamish. Marking its 75th anniversary, the new course, based at Valence, opens with two mountain stages run in the dark - "hallelujah" cry the traditionalists - although it reaches a purely cosmetic finale in the shape of a super-special stage around the principality's harbour on Sunday morning.

The WRC's identity crisis has been compounded by a dearth of genuine contenders and inspiring personalities. Solberg is so compelling an exception he even manages to minimise a British sense of isolation.

"We have support in Britain and everywhere and you will see more of it when we start winning again," Solberg said. "We try to make rallying exciting. It should be. It shouldn't be boring."

That may be interpreted as a thinly veiled critique of Loeb's entertainment value, although British rallying fans would climb barefooted to the snowy mountain peeks to witness a predictable victory by one of their countrymen. It already seems an age since Colin McRae and Richard Burns turned the World Championship into a domestic dual.

The only British driver with a full-time WRC job is, for the second year, Matthew Wilson, and his relatively modest target is to finish consistently in the top 10. Such is the anxiety of the 19-year-old Stobart Ford driver about the capricious Monte he will settle for surviving unscathed.

The prospect of tackling unknown, icy and unpredictable roads even fills Gronholm, Ford's senior driver, with trepidation. But he cannot afford to adopt anything less than a positive attitude. The 38-year-old Finn won the Monte last season and, until Loeb recovers his full powers and Solberg takes delivery of his improved car, he has the opportunity to establish an early advantage.

Gronholm, so determined to win a third title he is taking lessons to improve his tarmac-driving technique, said: "I hope we can repeat our manufacturers' title success but I also want to win the drivers' championship - that's an important target for me this year."

WRC calendar

January

18-21 Monte Carlo

February

9-11 Sweden

16-18 Norway

March

9-11 Mexico

30-April 1 Portugal

May

4-6 Argentina

18-20 Italy

June

1-3 Acropolis

August

3-5 Finland

17-19 Germany

31-Sept 2 New Zealand

October

5-7 Spain

12-14 Corsica

26-28 Japan

November

16-18 Ireland

30-Dec 2 Britain

Comments