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Dearly Departed: When Subaru left the WRC

September 27, 2010

For years, Subaru was synonymous with rally racing. Since 1989, when the distinctively-colored Subaru World Rally team was created, the Japanese car manufacturer has been a strong and important presence in the World Rally Championship (WRC). First with the Legacy, and later with the now well-known Impreza 555 and Impeza WRX, SWRT was one of the most successful teams in the series.

Subaru Impreza 555

Subaru won the WRC driver’s championship on three  occasions, in 1995, 2001, and 2003, with the Legendary Colin McRae, Richard Burns, and Petter Solberg, repectively. They also won the manufacturers title three times, in 1995, 1996, and 1997.

Petter Solberg pilots a 2007 Subaru WRX STI

The design of Subarus seems perfectly matched to rally racing, and in a future post, I’ll discuss why that is the case, but suffice it say that Subaru’s obligatory Symmetrical All Wheel Drive (AWD), horizontally-opposed (read: flat) four cylinder engine, and nearly bulletproof build quality combine to make a very quick little package on dirt, tarmac, or (gasp) snow.

This video shows a little bit of each Subaru rally car variant in action to some pretty ridiculous European pop/techno.

Unfortunately, after Solberg won the title in 2003 (and followed with two second place finishes in 2004 and 2005), the new version of the Subaru Impreza WRX that debuted in 2006 seemed inherently flawed. The team struggled to iron out the difficulties through 2006 and 2007, and had to deal with mechanical problems stemming from the transmission, and personnel issues that resulted in the resignation of David Lapworth, who had been the SWRT team manager for many years. Interestingly, Lapworth is now the technical director of Prodrive, the company that ran SWRT. Prodrive will reenter the WRC next year with Mini.

A troubled WRX

So it was that the team laid it’s hopes on the doorstep of 2008. It was intended to be a breakthrough year, with an all-new car and a team that was ready to win after two years-worth of tribulation. However, the team did not get to run the new car until mid-way through the season.

The new version of the Subaru WRX debuted in Greece

On it’s debut in Greece, the new car was driven to a second-place finish by Petter Solberg, an auspicious start that was not repeated for the rest of the year, as Solberg’s best resultss were two fourth-place finishes in New Zealand and Great Britain. However, Subaru’s other driver, Chris Atkinson, did take the new car to a podium finish with a third at Rally Finland.

It would all be in vain, however, as Subaru announced it would withdraw from the series at the end of 2008. Though the factory cited economic reasons for the pullout, insiders tend to agree that a new rule change for 2009 was the real cause. A mandatory transversely-mounted inline four-cylinder would exclude from competition the traditional boxer (horizontally opposed) engine that drives all Subarus, making participation essentially worthless for road-car development.

Thus, the World Rally Championship lost a team with an excellent racing pedigree and a huge fan base. Currently only two manufacturers are factory supported in the WRC, Citroen and Ford, though as mentioned, Mini will be joining the fray during select rounds of the 2011 World Rally Championship.

Subaru struggled in 2006 and 2007.

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