The World Rally Championship (WRC) is quite possibly one of the toughest challenges in motorsport. Competitors are often only separated by mere fractions of a second, despite tackling difficult and varied terrain, often in blistering heat, freezing or seriously wet conditions. In short the WRC is the ultimate test of man and machine. History and legends have been created on the tarmac of Corsica, the snow of Sweden, the plains of Africa and the dark forests of Wales...
Few success stories are as compelling as Prodrive's own. The British engineering and technology firm has been at the very heart of rallying for more than 27 years notching up more than 100 international rallies and six World Rally Championships. Their motorsport involvement also stretches beyond rallying with successful touring car, GT and endurance racing programmes but it is perhaps their rally success for which they are best known and specifically their success with Subaru.
However all good things must come to an end and Subaru moved away from rallying after an incredible and successful 20 year relationship with Prodrive. The Japanese manufacturer withdrew from World Championship rallying in 2008.
Prodrive has been host to many top competitors over the years but two British legends stand out in particular. They are Colin McRae, and Richard Burns, sadly neither is with us today but both remain heroic figures in a sport that marks out the men from the boys.
The sight of the iconic pearly blue and yellow Subaru Impreza WRC car flat out over a jump, McRae at the helm with that distinctive warbly gargle delivered from the flat four engine is an image many will have etched on their mind.
With such successes under its belt it is no surprise to find that today Prodrive and Öhlins are in technical partnership. Öhlins itself has been involved in rallying since 1988 and the list of manufacturers they have worked with is long and distinguished. Rallying serves up a useful challenge to Öhlins as Mats Thorsell from Öhlins Racing explains, "We have been competing in rallying for over 20 years, it is probably one of the toughest and intense environments to test our technology and as such rallying is an invaluable platform to develop our products."
The importance of high quality suspension components for rallying is not to be underestimated, as David Lapworth, Prodrive Group Technical Director points out, "During rally conditions and in particular at World Rally Championship level we encounter some of the most challenging and diverse terrain in motorsport. The energy going through the car is enormous and this has a big impact on our suspension selection where adjustment, quality and dependability are fundamental to getting the performance out of our car."
The latest WRC challenger developed by Prodrive is the MINI Countryman WRC car which is fitted with a bespoke Öhlins suspension system. It's an important relationship as Lapworth explains, "We work very closely with our technical partners and with suspension technology being a fundamental part in the development of a competitive rally car, our relationship with Öhlins Racing has been vital."
In 2011 the MINI Countryman WRC car proved to be competitive straight out of the box and competed at a limited number of rounds with success in what was largely a development year, podium finishes and a number of stage wins proved the package was strong.
The MINI Countryman WRC car will again be competing in 2012 in a selection of events. Development of the car continues and Öhlins Racing remain a key partner. Thorsell continues "We are very proud of our partnership with Prodrive, their MINI Countryman WRC programme has shown great promise and I'm glad we have been a vital part of that."
WRC Rally Finland is the next chance to see the MINI Countryman in action, running from the 2nd – 4th August.
To learn more about Prodrive and their WRC programme visit www.prodrive.com
ÖHLINS AND RALLYING…
1988 saw the firm's first foray into rallying, developing Sierra Cosworth dampers for the original Stig, Mr Blomqvist. At the time, Ford, like many other teams used to have to bring literally hundreds of set-rate damper options on event with them, having to change the entire set-up for each and every stage, to suit weather and surface conditions. Öhlins engineer Thomas Pettersson saw a much easier way and developed adjustable dampers instead; meaning teams only had to carry a handful of spare dampers instead of an entire service-barge full.
The sport changed overnight. Around this time, another Swedish driver, Harri Joki turned to Öhlins to develop an adjustable solution for his 2WD Peugeot 205 and 306 rally cars. Öhlins in-house guru Lars Osth created a set-up using existing Öhlins components – and the start of what we know as their 'kit system' was born.
The early '90s saw Öhlins partner with Toyota Team Europe, creating dampers for the legendary Celica Group A car and subsequently the later Toyota Corolla WRC machine.
The Mitsubishi Lancer with Tommi Mäkinen at the wheel, dominated World rallying in the late '90s, culminating in no less than four Championship wins on Öhlins dampers. This partnership continued into other off-road genres, with the Paris-Dakar Pajeros also relying on the damper's unique characteristics and legendary build quality.
Since then, the list of manufacturers that has relied on Öhlins has been as long as it is impressive. Hyundai's WRC effort, Peugeot's WRC customer builds, and even Prodrive's ill-fated 2009 car have all flashed the gold under their flared arches . Latterly, the firm has moved its attention towards Group N, where they have proved to be an obvious choice to teams and constructors running Subaru and Mitsubishi. 2WD pedallists were always catered for too, however, with Renault's Clio and Megane packages also rolling out of their respective factories on Öhlins.
So in the bowels of Öhlins near the dark Swedish forest tracks there will always be a strong passion for rallying…