After a devastating first round and a good dose of “man-flu” to top off a not-so-perfect start to the 2009 season, it was time to head back to China… This time: Beijing, the Huairou district.
Tony’s health problems had put an eight-day halt on his personal training programme and were coupled with the fact that Tony and John were the only Team FCACA crewmembers not to have competed on these stages in previous years. Although their new Chinese teammates had finished 1st & 2nd in the 1600cc front wheel drive class on their last visit here.
This meant the Kiwi/Aussie duo needed to dig deep and focus stronger than ever before if they wanted to compete for team honours, hold on to their 2008 foreign drivers title and show their true pace on their first tarmac rally since Shanghai at the beginning of 2008 (which resembled more of a race track compared to this rally!).
The week had started without Team KST driver Juha Salo and his co-driver Mika Steinberg, who were competing in Finland the same week but were replaced for this event with the equally talented crew of Jarkko Miettinen and Tapio Suominen. However, no-one could have foreseen the heartbreaking ordeal fellow Subaru pilot Dean Herridge would have to endure. After being in Beijing for one day, he was then escorted to quarantine for sitting within three seats of a person suspected of having bird-flu on the flight over – meaning he would not compete here at all.
Tony – “This is a real blow for our good friend, Subaru China and their hundreds of guests, the China Rally Championship and for Dean’s mother who had travelled from Australia to see her boy perform around the mountain roads and ruins of the Great Wall.
This rally has a different feel about it without Deano, Juha and Mika, who instantly made John and I feel at home in China back in 2008. It’s an honour to perform with these rally giants”
Chris Murphy (Dean’s co-driver) was left wondering whether he and their Team Subaru China steed would run at all, while negotiations began with Australia’s Evans brothers, to see if it was possible for either of them to get to China in time for the Thursday-Friday event.
Finally, Chris was informed that he would be calling notes for Simon Evans, a two-time Australian Rally champion, leading this year's ARC into the final championship round, adding another sting in the tail of an already immense foreign driver line-up including…
– Jussi Valimaki & Marko Sallinen
– David Higgins & Leuan Thomas
– Jarkko Miettinen & Tapio Suominen
This was looking to be a titanic Subaru/Mitsubishi battle, with representatives from all over the globe providing a real credit to the professionalism of the teams performing in the China Rally Championship.
Team FCACA tested early in the week (with a far from healthy Tony Green) on a 2km stretch of public road similar to the two rally stages, run three times in one direction on Thursday and twice the other on Friday, allowing the two of our drivers to get a feel for the new Prodrive N15 Subaru Impreza.
After 32km and one set of tyres, Tony was happy with the setup of the car and Pirelli’s RX7 tyre.
Tuesday’s “Recce Races” claimed their usual victims, with obvious signs of people having been here before either adhering (or not) to the 70km per hour speed limit imposed by the organisers on the open, public roads and revealing a 200+km/h technical rally, with obstacles on each and every metre of the challenging stages…
Stage 1 – The pace was hot, with David Higgins setting it at 11 minutes 6 seconds, closely followed by Jarkko Miettinen & Tapio Suominen at 11.08. This was followed by another pair of flying Finns, Jussi Valimaki & Marko Sallinen, posting a time of 11 minutes 14 seconds, then Tony and John 3 seconds behind them with a consistent second stage for 2009.
Stage 2 – Tony, getting a feel for the new car, posted the 3rd quickest time (8 seconds slower than David Higgins over the 17km stage) while continuously making minor set-up and pace note changes.
Stage 3 – Another 4th place on this stage prompted the following from Tony: “After a near miss halfway through the stage with an unforgiving tree, I couldn’t help but feel I had used up my “get out of jail free cards”, while struggling with a hard tyre compound that took a long time to work in the heat and we started to fall away a bit.”
Stage 4 – Now the Finns started to play, with Jarkko & Tapio beating Jussi & Marko by 4 seconds. David & Leuan had posted a time of 8 minutes, 43 seconds, while Tony & John were now struggling at the beginning and end of the stages with the wrong tyres, although they were also perfecting their notes on the slower corners… However, 44 seconds off the top placed Mitsubishi is not where Team FCACA needed to be at this point in the rally.
Stage 5 – With the Pirelli RX7 tyre working from the start of the stage, Tony now needed to work with engineer John McLean to find the ever-improving setup to the Prodrive N15. He felt he was struggling with under-steer in the slower corners and hairpins which, combined with a long brake pedal, launch control and temperature issues from the rear differential, had resulted in the loss of a further 15 seconds to the quickest Evo on the stage (David/Leuan at 11 minutes 02 seconds). However, they were still the quickest Subaru – Up 7 seconds on this stage to the Australian Rally Championship superstar, Simon Evans, who announced he had now found a good setup with the beautifully presented Team Subaru China Subaru WRX STI.
Stage 6 – The final stage of Day 1. While Tony and John were comfortable in “no man’s land” (1 minute either way to their competitors) and essentially now just testing for a tarmac setup for the next China Rally Championship round, it was time to push … but also finish! This was going better than it had all day, until approximately 3 km from the end of the final stage of the day, where another life was lost on a fast-tightening, left-hand corner, Tony and John managed to find the only run-off (a gravel car park), coming to a standstill for around 20 seconds…
“A real shame as the in-car video of this stage looked good to that point.”
Thursday came to an end in park ferme, with nothing in it between the 3 Mitsubishis of Jarkko/Tapio, David/Leuan and Jussi/Marko, with the latter putting on an incredible performance as one of the 3 foreign drivers who had never competed in this rally before.
Tony and John had struggled most of the day with tyres they had never driven on before, along with one or two minor teething problems with the developments on their new Prodrive N15 Subaru Impreza, mainly caused by the heat of the summer days.
The positives from Day 1 were that the pace notes were now working well after 7 months, as well as having the measure of the Subaru field, with Simon Evans struggling to find a setup for his Subaru Impreza until late in the day.
Day 2 would be hotter again, and with all the foreign crews upbeat about the world-class Mitsubishi contest upfront, Tony and John were left to battle it with Simon Evans & Chris Murphy for “Subaru Day 2 honours.”
Stage 7 – Tony: “We woke to a beautiful Friday morning, in fact it was my birthday, the perfect way to spend it…A Dream comes True. For me now, my job is to test and develop our car on the tarmac and bring it to the finish in preparation for our next tarmac rally…I want to be quickest Subaru home in our first tarmac rally, and you just never know who might fall off the road in front of us”…
Team FCACA’s Green and Allen did exactly that, by 2 seconds, but were still a staggering 20 seconds off the flying Jussi Valimaki who was on “maximum attack”
Stage 8 – After late-night discussions with Prodrive’s world championship winning engineer, John McLean, it was decided to work on a centre differential map to help reduce under-steer, along with working on the ride height and suspension dampening to find the perfect setup for the elusive quickest stage time for 2009.
The cars struggled with the morning heat and our FCACA foreign drivers pairing nearly stalled at the start and then drove too relaxed, losing their first stage to Simon Evans by 1 second.
Stage 9 – Tony: “The car is getting better with every stage. Unfortunately, I am thinking too much about the perfect setup and not finishing two rallies in a row, with 7 months out of the car, is out of the question – meaning I drove that stage too relaxed and didn’t commit to the slower corners but did manage to take 5 out of Simon Evans.
Stage 10 – The final stage of the Beijing rally for 2009.
“To finish first … You must first finish!”
For the first third of the stage, Tony drove ok. From then on, though, it was back to average, meaning the Subaru battle would come down to this last stage. Tony and John were able to take it out by 4 seconds on Day 2, and just under 1 minute over the whole two-day event. This resulted in them finishing 4th overall, behind the intense battle between the front three, which everyone witnessing thought would end with at least one Mitsubishi not making it to the finish.
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Tony – “Crossing the line on the penultimate stage was more a feeling of a disappointment than the usual buzz of podium excitement. The battle up front was awesome and an honour to witness from 4th position.
Obviously, this is not what we are here to do.
I need to be on their pace, which is no mean feat having only competed in 16 rallies compared to the hundreds of rallies our European superstars have under their belts… We need to work extremely hard now to lower that deficit and gain as much experience as humanly possible to find that pace I know is there. I guess everything needs to be perfect!
I cannot thank my immediate team enough. Mr Chen, Liang, Lei, Cooking, Zhong and Adrian, Prodrive’s John McLean and David Williams for the incredible job they have done together to repair our damaged N15 after our Round 1 accident… John and I could never have achieved quickest Subaru home on our first tarmac rally without you all and your extra efforts…
David Higgins and Leuan Thomas for driving the wheels off here in stages 8 and 10, putting on a master class and winning the rally by 4 seconds – 1. 39.40
Jarkko Miettinen and Tapio Suominen for driving equally from the outset – 1. 39.44
& Jussi Valimaki and Marko Sallinen for a great result on their first visit here – 1. 40.00
(written by Darrl Fernandez)