The Subaru brand, with its distinctive deep blue and bright yellow colour scheme, is almost synonymous with rallying and enjoys a loyal following from fans the world over. After a disappointing 2007 season, Subaru pushes on with the hopes of turning its recent performances around and reclaiming its championship winning ways.
The Subaru brand is one of the best known in rallying - and for good reason. The sport has helped it evolve into a performance brand that is a match for many of its European rivals. In turn, that popularity on the road has helped evolve the rallying myth and a succession of star drivers, including Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns and now Petter Solberg further honed the legend.
Prodrive started the ball rolling in 1990 with the Legacy, before switching to the more rally-friendly Impreza in 1993. Double champion Carlos Sainz and rising British star Colin McRae gradually became more and more successful as the car was developed, with McRae taking a first world title for both himself and the team in a dramatic 1995 season. Sainz left at the end of that year, but McRae led the team to second in the standings in 1996 as the focus turned to the new World Rally Car rules that were introduced in 1997.
Subaru was at the forefront as rallying’s new rules allowed more dramatic-looking evolutions of road cars to be built, and won the 1997 opener in Monte Carlo with its new Impreza WRC, thanks to asphalt ace Piero Liatti. With Kenneth Eriksson also continuing, Subaru’s drivers were quick enough to win eight rallies and the manufacturers’ title, but not the drivers’ crown. In 1998 McRae once again finished second in the drivers’ title chase as Subaru struggled to match Japanese rival Mitsubishi, and the Scot opted to go to Ford for 1999.
Richard Burns moved from Mitsubishi to join new signing Juha Kankkunen and finished second in the 1999 drivers’ chase, but Subaru suffered a trying 2000 as it failed to match Peugeot. In 2001 the drivers’ title went the way of Burns, but the Brit was on his way to Peugeot. Subaru kept setting the pace in 2002 as Petter Solberg emerged as a title contender, while Tommi Makinen provided solid back-up once more.
The young Norwegian scorched his way to four wins and the drivers’ crown in 2003, while Makinen continued to prove his class as a solid foil in the second car in his final year before retirement. Citroen had pipped Subaru to the manufacturers’ crown, however, and, despite Solberg winning five rallies in 2004, the French marque and rising star Sebastien Loeb proved to be too much and denied the Japanese marque the chance to take either title.
So much success in recent years, however, left the team eager to make up for that in 2005. New boy Chris Atkinson did his best to fill Makinen’s boots - a tough job when so many of the rallies were new to him - but a third place on Rally Japan showed he had potential. Solberg tried his best and won three more rallies, but Subaru was once again topped by the world-beating efforts of Loeb and Citroen.
Compared to Subaru’s previous form, the 2006 and 2007 seasons were extremely disappointing, with Petter Solberg claiming only six podium positions from 32 starts. Chris Atkinson could do no better, and neither could asphalt expert Xevi Pons, who contested eight rallies with the outfit in 2007. During this difficult period the team worked tirelessly to try and squeeze more performance from the Impreza - the basics of which were now 15 year old - but by the end of the season the frustration was clear to see on the faces of drivers and team alike.
But there is hope on the horizon. And it comes in the shape of a brand new car, based on the latest hatchback variant of the Impreza. The new car is expected to make its WRC debut sometime in the first half of the 2008 season. Although the exact date hasn’t yet been announced, for Solberg, Atkinson and the legions of Subaru fans it can’t come soon enough.