On the final day of Rally Finland 2003 Richard Burns, Carlos Sainz and Petter Solberg literally started the event all over again, only half a second separating the three after two days of driving. Eventually the final day was a great battle between Burns and Solberg – which the Norwegian took to his benefit and eventually went on to win the World Championship title. RALLIRINKI called Solberg and asked how he remembers it.
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The World Rallying champion of 2003 Petter Solberg answers his phone from his home garage. He’s between races in World Rallycross, busy running his team, but still interested in taking the time to talk about past times.
Petter, you finished second in the championship in the 2002 season and ended the season on a high note by taking your debut victory in Rally GB…
“I have the 2002 car in here at our workshop right now “, he interrupts enthusiastically.
“It’s exactly the same car I won the Rally GB 2002, exactly in the condition it came from the rally. I will use this car for a hillclimb competition in Norway (Norges Råeste Bakkeløp, held yesterday), just to do something nice.”
Ending the previous season on a high note, do you remember what goals you had set for the 2003 season?
“My goal was to get more experience and to be able to win the championship in the future. I wanted to learn as much as possible. Of course I knew I was fast, but the main thing was to build up experience and to get all the tactics together. It obviously went much better than even I expected myself. That was a big dream year, I can tell that.”
The season 2002 was very much dominated by Peugeot and Marcus Grönholm. For the 2003 season Citroën came with full force and Ford was having their new car introduced in the middle of the season. How confident you were on your own and your team’s chances against the other teams? At the that time you all were doing it big.
“I think the season 2003 was maybe the year with the most drivers from the old era and also from the new era as well. It was like everybody was in. Of course I was confident about the car, because when we ended 2002 with that car in Rally GB, we had developed it already earlier to go ahead. We had taken a very good step with the chassis and the car in general. I was in a strong team.“
“The only problem I had was that I didn’t have the history working for me like the Finnish drivers had – to have information from the earlier drivers. I was the first top driver from Norway. It was tricky at times. I had to work incredibly lot behind the scenes to do the right things and to learn from other guys. It was not easy.”
You had a kind of nightmare start to the 2003 season. After the first three events you had only 3 points with two zero scores. By the mid-season and Rally Finland, you were 5th in the championship 13 points adrift of Burns who was in the championship lead. In an interview for Rally XS magazine at the time, you mentioned you were still aiming for the championship, even if that far behind in the points. Did you really believe in that?
“For sure I did. The difference between that time and today is that then you knew other drivers will have problems too. It was like that statistically, be it technical problems or an accident. Every season that would happen. I knew when I could get everything together, I would have the chance and when I got everything together and got everything done, I thought OK, I will only have to do that again like a machine on every race, all the time. I hoped the big battle would happen only in the final rally, what was exactly what happened.“
The second half of the season from the victory in Cyprus and the 2nd place in Finland meant you had found your pace and consistency.
“Of course I had to take it race by race. I was maybe a little bit too cocky in the start of the season and then I was thinking, OK, I have to take maybe one step back and start a little bit calmer and bring the consistency into the driving. But you know, when you are young and had just won Rally GB, you will start the next season with too much confidence.”
As I know the sport and the drivers, it’s difficult for a top driver to do that reset and take the step back in the middle of the season. How did you succeed in that?
“I had a very good teammate who helped me a lot. That kind of help I would have needed in my early years too. We got good to be good friends and he gave me advice on everything. This is what I didn’t get from Norway.”
We are talking about Tommi Mäkinen?
“Exactly. Tommi is a fantastic guy. I rate him as very professional and not scared of competition. He is also a World Champion. I learned a lot from him.”
Let’s get into Rally Finland 2003. Your teammate Mäkinen said in the pre-event interviews that Rally Finland was not in Subaru’s high priority list that year which meant you had the pre-event tests only the weekend before, two days for both of you. How do you remember your preparations being that year?
“Rally Finland is always very difficult one to fight against the Finnish drivers. I think the testing is always important to do as close as possible to the event to get the speed into your body. That was the main priority for us at the time. At the end of the day you just have to get the speed as early as possible in the event and get on going. It’s a rally everyone loves, but for sure we had to put that extra work every time for Finland.”
“We were learning and we put that extra work there. Nowadays aerodynamics is very important in WRC. We did that test in Finland and we were the first to have these fins in back of the rear wing. That helped a lot in Finland in the high speed corners. I think it was 0,1-0,2 seconds per kilometer in the speed on the corners at that time. I remember that very well, it was a good setup.“
Come the rally, it was eventually a two horse race between Märtin and Grönholm. On the first leg you had your small problems, but still dropping 50 seconds down in Finland is a lot.
“Marcus was born in those kind of roads. I was born on different types of roads. I really needed to concentrate on the consistency and get as much points as possible from the event. That was my main focus, I think.“
Halfway through the rally your event as well as Tommi’s was characterized by many issues with the mousse system when the Pirelli tyres punctured.
You also had some stages with hard vibrations from the tyres. A classic case is the second run through the Ouninpohja stage. You came to the stage end very frustrated saying to the stage end interviewer “having had the biggest mousse problem in your career”. That poor fellow thought you meant the king of the forest, a moose, and asked which side of the road it stood. Do you remember that moment?
“(Laughing hard.) I do. OK, my English wasn’t that good at the time.”
There was a lot of humor involved between the drivers at the time. During the days you fought tooth and nail in the stages, but coming to Saturday’s end of the day press conference, you were like a bunch of school boys.
“I remember that press conference! It was good thing. We had a lot of fun at that time. That’s the spirit. We enjoyed it a lot.“
On that press conference you were asked about the fans as Märtin’s Estonian fans and your Norwegian fans were very visible that year. You said that the Norwegian fans are still in the stages following the event, then Burns took the microphone and said “they’re still in the stages because they’re so drunk”.
“I remember that one! I think I replied to Richard something about seeing only one spectator that was his fan during the whole event.”
On Sunday, the rally started all over again for you, Burns and Sainz as you started the last leg within half a second. On Saturday evening you downplayed your chances to take the 2nd place from Burns. Did you really think that?
“I was playing the game a little bit. I knew the Peugeot was fast, of course. I needed to push. If I wanted to win Richard, I knew I had to go a little bit over the limit and then there’s the risk factor also, but I felt quite confident that I could make a big attack.”
That’s exactly what you did on the Sunday stages. The battle between you and Burns briefly stole the show from Märtin’s victory.
“I took the fight to the last stage. I remember I was parking behind Richard before the last stage, but he didn’t want me to park there. He was so focused and didn’t want to talk to me before the stage.”
The last stage was the Mökkiperä with big jumps in the beginning. You went over them flat out.
“I took them flat out and the first corner also, I had a big attack and got a bit wide, I remember. It was good fun and that feeling at the end, that I had done it, that was very good. I was very happy in the stage end. If all goes well in a fight like that, I get emotional.”
On Subaru team’s pre-event press release, there’s an interview with you how you’ve been playing with your son Oliver, 21 months at the time, buying him a kickbike in “metallic blue, naturally” and the press release also jokes about that Oliver might become a rally driver in the future. 15 years later that is now happening. When did you realize your son is going to follow your footsteps in motorsport?
“The thing is, I tried to have him not getting into motorsports. I tried to get him start other hobbies, like football and ice hockey. I know how hard work it is to get to drive rallying in the top level and you have to give up a lot with friends and family. Things just happened and it came from his passion. To follow a father who has had a successful career in motorsport, it’s more difficult too. He seems to tackle that very well now.”
If we look at Rally Finland 2003’s WRC entries, there’s Harri Rovanperä whose son Kalle Rovanperä is starting Rally Finland this year in an R5 car and same goes for Sebastian Lindholm’s son Emil Lindholm. There are other examples of the next generation drivers too. The next generation from early 2000’s children is now coming. There is something in this sport that takes it from fathers to sons.
“It has to come from themselves. It’s hard work getting all the sponsorship. It’s not only about driving. My son would not drive if he would not find the sponsor. You will have to learn it properly. I would not just put money into it. It’s not good to go too quickly forward.
“Every sport cost a lot. It takes the time and all the preparation. It a total package every time. Nothing you can do in a cheap way. You have to follow your project and build up experience. Be it in a crosskart or an R2. You shouldn’t go to an R5 too quickly. It’s better to learn about all the mistakes in a cheap class. It’s then possible to repair in cheap way. Young drivers must learn to do the pace notes, repair the car, roll on the stage and repair the car, all these things you have to learn early.”
Or if you go too quickly, you should take the step back.
“Exactly. I think the best example is Jari-Matti Latvala who shouldn’t have been in the World Championship that early.”
Another example is Andreas Mikkelsen, but he took the step back.
“You are absolutely right. He still isn’t a World Champion and has a lot to learn, but he’s on the right way.
One final question. What is your current relationship with Rally Finland?
“I haven’t been to the rally lately. I have my RX driving and a lot of work to do with my own team with Volkswagen cars. If I would only drive the car, then it would be fine, but I ran the whole team with my wife and we have 40 people working for us.
“I follow every rally with All Live when I have the possibility. I also follow times and also try to analyze why some drivers are losing time and other are so fast. I like the technical side a lot.
“For sure Rally Finland is the best rally. It’s the best organized with the best passion and with the best roads. I think everybody says the same.”
I hope one year you would have the time to visit the event again or even take part in it. You know retired Finnish drivers have this habit of doing it one more time. Or maybe for you that rally would be Rally Sweden?
“We have talked about doing WRC for fun, me, Loeb and Marcus in the same team. That would be good fun.”
I think I just got my headline.
“I have mentioned this to Loeb and I have mentioned this to Marcus. One car each, one team and see what we could do.”
Here ends our call. With a joker face or a poker face, maybe one day we will learn. There’s only one Petter Solberg.