Rocky, bumpy gravel roads, temperatures of up to 50 °C in the cockpit and huge dust clouds – the Rally Greece is considered a real acid test for man and machine. The team from Volkswagen Motorsport is ideally prepared for the sixth round of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship (WRC), which will take place between 31 May and 02 June. After the Rally Argentina, the Wolfsburg-based car maker’s three driver teams – Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (FIN/FIN), Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (F/F) and Andreas Mikkelsen/Mikko Markkula (N/FIN) – spent several days completing test drives in Greece to get used to the demanding local conditions. This should help them to defend their leading position in the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships.
“In the World Rally Championship, you never have long after successfully tackling a challenge before you face the next one,” says Volkswagen Motorsport Director Jost Capito. “Having scored points finishes with all three Polo R WRCs at the end of the Rally Argentina, we’re hoping to perform similarly well in Greece. Now that the legendary Safari Rally is no longer part of the WRC calendar, the Rally Greece is undoubtedly the toughest challenge of the year for all the teams. We’re delighted to be taking part in it for the first time with our Polo R WRC.”
Makeover for a rallying classic: the Acropolis as a gravel sprint
The Rally Greece is one of the longest-standing events in the history of rallying and was one of the founding members of the world championship back in 1973. Then, the rally was a test of endurance around the Acropolis in Athens. Now, the Greek event has become a modern sprint rally. This year, the organisers have shortened the distance of the stages by approximately 100 kilometres compared to 2012. However, the competition remains a taxing combination of hard, fast sections and softer, winding roads.
The rally starts with the longest special stage of the whole weekend, as the teams face the 44.7-kilometre “Kineta–Pissia” on the Friday evening. Saturday’s itinerary features no less than eight stages totalling 149.56 kilometres, interrupted only by a single 30-minute service break in the early afternoon. Once the teams have completed the SS “Loutraki” for the second time on Sunday, the winners of the 59th Rally Greece will have been decided.
Last year, Volkswagen took part in the Greek rally with two cars manufactured by the Group’s brand Škoda. Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (F/F) won the Super 2000 category and finished the Acropolis Rally in an outstanding seventh position overall, ranking alongside more powerful World Rally Cars. They will be competing in the top category with the Polo R WRC in 2013 – as the leaders in the World Rally Championship. The French duo has a comfortable lead in the drivers’ championship after five of the 13 WRC events. Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (FIN/FIN) will also be competing for Volkswagen in Greece, having edged up to fourth in the overall standings of the drivers’ competition with a podium finish at the recent Rally Argentina. The Finnish pair has also made a crucial contribution towards Volkswagen’s number one position in the all-important manufacturers’ championship. Andreas Mikkelsen/Mikko Markkula (N/FIN), who have achieved points finishes in both of their two rallies to date, complete Volkswagen’s line-up in the third Polo R WRC.
Quotes prior to the Rally Greece
Jari-Matti Latvala, Polo R WRC #7: “The Rally Greece is the hardest WRC race of the year. The gravel roads are among the toughest challenges the World Rally Championship has to offer. Very fast sections on relatively rough, hard surfaces alternate at times with slower, smoother parts. That means you face totally different conditions from one minute to the next and have to be ready for anything. With some 300 kilometres’ worth of stages, the Rally Greece is really short, which means that you have to be fast right from the start and find your rhythm quickly. But there are also some special stages where going easy on the car has to be a priority. It’s all about getting the compromise right. I prepared really well for the rally by spending two days testing in Greece after I got back from Argentina. The key issue for me was working on the Polo R WRC’s suspension and traction. The latter is particularly important in Greece because there are lots of crests and jumps. Last year, I spent a lot of time fighting for the lead in Greece until I made a mistake which caused a tyre to burst and put me back in third place. This time, I want to complete an error-free run and ideally fight to win. A podium finish would be really important, especially for the manufacturers’ championship.”
Sébastien Ogier, Polo R WRC #8: “I like the Rally Greece because I have really fond memories of it – not just thanks to my win in 2011. My second place in 2009 in particular will always have a special place in my heart, because you could call it my breakthrough in the WRC category; things have got better and better for me since then. The Rally Greece is one of the most difficult and toughest events of the year. When we did our test drives after the Rally Argentina, we simulated conditions which are typical for Greece to see where we could improve the Polo R WRC. This helped us to make good progress and I’m confident that we’ll be able to achieve another good result. Of course, I’d ideally like to win every rally, but we need to think about the world championship too. Given our comfortable lead in both competitions, we don’t absolutely have to win. It’ll be enough if we keep racking up points regularly.”
Andreas Mikkelsen, Polo R WRC #9: “Now that I’ve completed my first two rallies in the Polo R WRC, I can hardly wait for the Rally Greece to start. The latest test drives went really well too. I notched up about 160 kilometres, working on both my driving style and the tuning, which further increased my confidence in the Polo R WRC. After my test, I spent another two days with the team in Greece, watching Sébastien and Jari-Matti doing their testing work. It was interesting to see where they brake, how they position the car on the bends and how they tackle the crests. All of that taught me a lot more about driving a World Rally Car. In Portugal, I was about one second per kilometre behind – in Argentina I was just five tenths of a second off first place. My aim is to further reduce this margin.”
Volkswagen in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC)
Volkswagen is continuing its motorsport success story by competing in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC). Having achieved three successes with the Race Touareg at the Dakar Rally, the Polo R WRC is the German car maker’s first World Rally Car. This season is also the first time VW has fielded its own factory team in rallying’s most prestigious competition. The championship offers Volkswagen an opportunity to enhance its global reputation by going head to head with other manufacturers. No model is better suited to this challenge than the Polo – one of Volkswagen’s most widely produced and best-selling cars around the world.
Three questions for … François-Xavier (“FX”) Demaison
The Polo R WRC is the first World Rally Car you are responsible for developing. How do you feel about the car after the first five rallies of this season?
“It would be fair to say that we’re pleasantly surprised by how things have gone so far this season. No one in the team expected us to bag three wins and podium finishes at each rally. We’ve faced a few minor problems, of course, but luckily none of them have led to bad results. On the contrary – so far, we have finished well every time. There is no doubt that’s partly thanks to our good preparation. Last year, we conducted tests in practically all conceivable conditions. All of our engineers and mechanics already have two years of hard work behind them, so I’m pretty proud of what we’ve achieved so far. But there’s no doubt that we’re learning all the time; it’s a constant process. We are bound to face new problems that we have no idea about yet. That’s part of motorsport. We’re still serving our apprenticeship this season, and what we learn will help us to be even better prepared for 2014.”
What technological features of the Polo R WRC really stand out?
“First off, there’s the latest version of the Polo: the car is very light and only has short overhangs. That’s a very good starting point for developing a World Rally Car, which made our job easier. But that was just step one. Next, we added outstanding teamwork. The engine, chassis, suspension, transmission and electric – all of the departments work together harmoniously and, above all, successfully.”
So what’s next? How will the Polo R WRC change and develop from rally to rally?
“The handbrake system recently became an important issue, and we’ve spent a lot of time dealing with that in the run-up to Greece. When the handbrake was applied, it didn’t disengage the front axle as quickly as drivers like Sébastien Ogier would have liked. We’ll be introducing a new hydraulic system in Greece which has undergone an extensive series of planned tests to be approved for use in competition. This new system is all about performance rather than other considerations such as durability. In general, our competitors have a slight edge over us on this score. Speaking very broadly, there is also some scope to work on the car’s reliability because we experienced some teething trouble in the first five rallies of this season. We need to eliminate these little problems if we want to be in the running for the world championship. Last but not least, vehicle development is an ongoing issue in motorsport: you can always improve something somewhere.”
Number crunching at the Rally Greece: 317
The Rally Greece puts the World Rally Cars’ chassis to the test like no other gravel rally in the world championship. For example, during Volkswagen’s recent test drives, the Polo R WRC’s data recorder registered 317 spring movements per kilometre.