Subaru World Rally Team driver Petter Solberg made an appearance at the Rim of the World SCCA ProRally, meeting Subaru owners and rally fans, signing autographs, and had a chance to drive on the Press Stage and at a Super Special spectator stage next to the headquarters hotel. The 27-year-old Norwegian is in his second full season of driving for Subaru, the youngest driver running all of the WRC events.
He took a few minutes from his busy weekend schedule to answer a few questions.
"I started to drive when I was six at my parents' farm," said Solberg. "When I was ten, my brother and I built engines on the cars my parents drove in autocross. In 1986, I won my first championship in radio-controlled cars; I was the youngest guy competing in RC. The day after I got my drivers license, when I turned 18 [in 1992], I drove in my first autocross and finished second. In my second race I won."
Solberg moved on to Rallycross* and Hillclimb in 1995 with a Volvo 240 acquired from his brother, Henning. He drove that car to the Norwegian championship, then went on to become champion again in '96. He got a contract with Renault in '96, to drive in the Renault Spyder Cup which ran as a supporting event to Formula One races. "I was the fastest, but I said 'no' because it was so boring. I needed more sideways and more high-tech."
"I borrowed 85,000 pounds from the bank and bought my first rally car in '96, a Toyota Celica All-Trac. My second rally I had a massive accident."
He acquired an ex-Thomas Rådström Toyota Celica for '97, which he took to the Norwegian Hillclimbing championship. He moved to a newer style Celica for '98 and captured the Norwegian Group A Rally title. Solberg made his World Championship debut at the 1998 Swedish Rally where he finished 14th overall. He also took part in the Rally of Great Britain but retired after an accident.
Petter was signed by the Ford World Rally Team in 1999, and made his works debut at the Swedish Rally in and Escort WRC with Phil Mills as his co-driver. When Ford driver Thomas Rådström was injured just prior to the '99 Safari Rally, Solberg was called in as the replacement. He finished fifth overall despite having never run the Safari nor driven the Ford Focus WRC car. He stayed with Ford for the first half of 2000, netting a fifth place in Kenya, sixth in Australia and a career best fourth in New Zealand.
"Subaru came to me in August, 2000 and I signed with them. Since then I have been very, very happy. So that is the short story of my long career."
"My mother was Norwegian Champion also, and my father was the most winning driver in Norway in autocross. My brother is a driver, my girlfriend is Norwegian champion in Group N. Her father drives, both of her uncles, both of my uncles are drivers. It's a very big motorsports family."
The move to the World Championship was a large step. "When I first came here I thought, 'This is f**kin' impossible!' because it was so fast. Other drivers were doing it so I knew it was possible but still it was difficult. But now after I have done so many rallies it is no problem at all. You just need experience. It takes time."
Solberg was teamed with Richard Burns for his first season with Subaru. But Burns left for Peugeot in a much publicized defection after winning the 2001 World Rally Driver's Championship. Did that sudden departure and the equally sudden addition of Tommi Makinen have an affect on the young Norwegian?
"Not really, I don't care. I was very happy with the team. Me and Richard Burns were not really the best of friends. He's a very difficult person. Tommi Makinen is a very good guy though, very nice and we have a very good relationship. But the changes in the team didn't affect anything for me at all."
Solberg is often considered as a contender for the World Driver's Championship. That seems like a lot of pressure on a 27-year-old.
"I'm doing my best and can't do any better" said Solberg. "There are so many things involved in running a rally -- mechanical, technical, and driving on the edge. I have won the most stages this year, but have been very unlucky. I should have been on the podium at every rally this year, I should have won at Cyprus, there are just so many variables. But it will come, I'm very positive, but I am working very, very hard.
"At the Cyprus Rally I was working with the differentials on the computer and I was able to make improvements to make the car fit my driving style. I am working all the time on setup which is so important. There is pressure the whole time, but you just have to live with it."
Solberg suffered mechanical problems on the first day at the Rally of Cyprus, dropping him into 34th place four minutes behind the leaders. He was able to fight his way back, eventually finishing 5th overall, only two minutes and seventeen seconds behind rally winner Marcus Gronholm.
American "professional" rallying used to be seen as less than Club rallying in most European countries, but in the past few years that perception has changed. Now some European drivers view the SCCA ProRally series as a stepping stone to get recognition on their way to WRC. And many in the WRC are hoping there will be a stop on the Championship trail in America.
"I think you are going into a very exciting future now," said Solberg. "The whole World Championship, drivers, television, everybody is looking forward to coming to America to do a rally. It's not far off, it can happen. It will take a lot of work behind the scenes first. There are lots of rules, planning and organizing because it's a different level of professionalism. But everybody in Europe is very positive. We need to go to America and get the whole World Championship complete. We hope to get many more spectators in America and the car manufacturers want the same. I think it's very important to the manufacturers that a guy in Los Angeles, or where ever, can see the cars used in rally are just like the cars he sees on the roads.
"In Norway we have 200 cars in the national championship; that's too many. Here it's a little different compared to other countries. You can see it in the organizing; there is a little bit of a lack. It's not easy for them to come up to that level. Once there are full-time people doing the organizing it will be better. But it is obvious they are trying so it will come.
"I think the easiest way to get a WRC event in America would be to follow the FIA rules. That would make it easy for teams from everywhere else in the world to compete. Align with the FIA rules for the cars, fuel system, service system, that is the first thing you should do. That would be a good step forward.
"It seems like promotion is getting better also. There are now more journalists covering the sport, more photograpers. It would be nice to have a Press Room to make it easy for you guys to do interviews and send reports."
Rim of the World has the reputation of being the roughest event in the ProRally Championship. What does Solberg think about smooth, fast events versus the rougher rallies like this one?
"If you can drive, you can drive on dry, wet, rough, snow, tarmac, everything, it doesn't matter. The stage I did here today was really good fun. It was the type of roads I like.
"I used to drive rallycross. It's a big change to move to rallying. I like it, just close the roads and go flat out."
* Rallycross in Europe is much different from what is known as rallycross in SCCA. European Rallycross is wheel-to-wheel racing of about six cars on a closed road course consisting of some paved and some unpaved sections of road. A heat race may be only one lap or a few laps of the course. One lap is usually less than a mile. The cars are AWD and may have 800 hp engines because they only have to last a few minutes.