07 Feb 08
On his personal website, Toshi Arai describes himself as an affable but intense character. He’s far too modest to further that self-portrait with the statistics which embody the most successful Group N driver in the modern history of the World Rally Championship; two Production Car World Rally Championship titles in the last three years are the stand out figures - and the numbers which mark the Japanese out as the man to watch this time around.
The one constant in Arai’s exceptionally successful career is Subaru. Since the 41-year-old first drove in the world championship in 1997, he has never driven anything other than an Impreza - he even tackled a programme of events for the Subaru World Rally Team in 2001 and 2002. But it’s the Group N Impreza WRX which he’s made his own.
Since the inception of the modern Production Car World Rally Championship in 2002, Arai has won 12 of the 46 rounds; he’s the only competitor ever to have won a round each season since ’02 and, of course, he’s the only man to have won the title twice. In short, it’s going to take an express train travelling at the speed of a Shinkansen to derail him in 2008.
We could, however, have said exactly the same in 2006, when Nasser Al-Attiyah beat him to the title. Al-Attiyah’s title defence last season was a catalogue of disasters. For somebody who simply never seemed to put the car off the road, the Qatari went through a period of barely being able to keep it on the road in both the Production and the Middle East series. His start to this year couldn’t have been better. He gave the new-shape Subaru Impreza WRX a debut win on the recent Qatar International Rally and looks on course to carry the fight to Toshi this year.
There are plenty more Subaru drivers to watch out for, including Italian Gianluca Linari, Evgeniv Vertunov (Russia) and super-rapid Finns Juusi Tiippana and Jari Ketomaa - the latter arrives on the back of winning the showroom title in his domestic series.Subaru Team USA will begin the competition on the second round, in Argentina, and will field cars for Travis Pastrana and Ken Block, both of whom will contest three rounds of the Production category alongside a domestic championship programme in America.
Beyond the exceptionally strong entry list for this year’s Production Car World Rally Championship, which boasts 28 individuals and teams, there is another element to the traditional Subaru versus Mitsubishi battle.
Not since Karamjit Singh won for Proton in 2002 has another manufacturer genuinely had a shot at defeating one of the Production Car’s big two, but this year, courtesy of Patrik Sandell’s Peugeot 207 Super 2000, it’s possible a European make could edge one the other Japanese firm. As a former Junior World Rally Champion, Sandell’s credentials behind the wheel are beyond question. What remains to be seen, is how the S2000 machinery lines up against the turbo-charged Lancers and Imprezas across the spread of the season.
Subaru just has the edge on Mitsubishi in terms of rally wins. Since 2002, the Impreza has triumphed 23 times, the Lancer 21, with Singh’s Pert collecting the other two wins.
Mitsubishi is well represented again this season. JWRC ace Martin Prokop starts his first full year in a Group N Lancer, with seasoned professionals such as Fumio Nutahara, Armindo Araujo and Andreas Aigner returning for more Production action. The latter’s Red Bull entry has been backed up with a sister car for former Portuguese kart champion Bernardo Sousa.
The forthcoming Swedish Rally is where the action gets underway, with the scorching battle between the world’s finest Group N drivers sure to warm the frozen wastes of Scandinavia.