Saarland a perfect test for Skoda

Saarland a perfect test for SkodaFrom Chris Biewer [ 21/06/2004 ].
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As we already reported, on last weekend’s Saarland Rallye in Germany we celebrated the first victory for a Skoda Fabia WRC. The crew responsible for this success was Armin Schwarz and Manfred Hiemer. Now we look a bit further into this event as it was not such a straight forward victory. Nothing seemed straight forward on this event when after a dry and sunny leg1 the weather switched to everything soaking wet for leg2. The stages were mostly on farm roads and even though only one leg2 stage was a repeat of the previous day, the stages soon were covered in mud as well as standing water. This provided many surprise twists in the event but also it was a perfect test for the Skoda team.

Indeed for testing the weekend could not have been any more successful for Skoda. The works team arrived early to do a two day test on the stage “Schloss Berg”. This is a former Saarland Rallye stage that was not in use for 2004. More importantly it used to be the only vine yard stage of the Saarland Rallye – confusingly for the outsider the stage is located at the river Mosel rather than the river Saar, however it is still located in Saarland county. Vine yards make 1/3rd of the Rallye Deutschland route while another 1/3rd is made up of “Saarland stages” very similar to those found in the Saarland Rallye. Of course the team could test one day in the wet and one day in the dry as well during the event. But there was even more to it as Armin Schwarz found out to everybody’s surprise.

Did you hear about the Miss whatever Competition, where the organisers said 'for the winner photo, can we park some cars in front of the girls'?

Armin’s road to victory was not as smooth as a 2m34.1s gap might suggest. He won 15 of the 16 stages, but the one he didn’t win nearly claimed a premature end to his rally! It was on SS10 where a short gravel road was incorporated. Coming off the rutted gravel onto tarmac a little step had formed. Plus of course gravel was thrown onto the tarmac. And all that when it just started bucketing down! The tarmac therefore was even more slippy than the gravel road just before, over the step the back end of the Fabia kicked up and with a medium right hander to follow it all was too much to keep the flying Fabia under control. The car went off onto the wet grass, here completely out of control and clipped a wooden telegraph pole just in front of the lefthand rear wheel. Indeed Armin was lucky that the most severe damage was a minute’s time loss!

Later Armin Schwarz and Manfred Hiemer made a point of thanking their team. It was the test team that do all the hard work and never get to go to WRC events. So Armin felt it was particularly sweet that it is this test team being responsible for the Fabia's first victory here in Saarland!

Isn't tarmac rallying boring!?

At the finish line Armin quipped: “We were here for testing. We tested the chassis!” Then he carried on with a most surprising conclusion: “Actually, I think this test was not only usefull for Rallye Deutschland but also for Rally Finland. I just can’t believe how bumpy the roads here are, there are jumps everywhere!”

Similar was the verdict of Dutch Piet van Hoof, who finished 14th in his Paradigit sponsored Mitsubishi Lancer: “The uphill bits are good but the downhill is scary – we don’t have downhill in Holland!”. And this leads us to an amazing battle between group N and S1600 cars, while at the top it was a podium lock out for Skoda WRCars (see previous report). The Saarland stages are hilly and very narrow, but they are also rather flowing and fast. This means without the consistant heavy braking and accelerating as on twistier stages, the Super 1600 cars are not at such a disadvantage against the full traction super turbo torque gN machines. So indeed after a dry day1 the leading group N car was only in 9th spot, behind four S1600 cars. But with plenty of standing water and mud on the agenda for leg2, these tables turned as extremely as could be!

An army of group N cars set out hunting for the poor, little S1600s, who in turn were busy enough with their own battles. Such treacherous were the conditions, I became an eye whitness when on one spot in SS14 none of the leading crews bar Schwarz, Kahle and Haaf could keep the car on the road! But one of the guys who hit it worst was Hermann Gassner. Starting behind Sven Haaf’s Citroen, who in turn struggled with a puncture, Gassner had nearly cought Haaf in the stage! But then in that famous curve Gassner went off and took a good 2 minutes to rejoin the track. Sven Haaf: “I kept looking in the mirrors thinking ‘when is he close enough to let him pass’ and for the last km or so I was looking in the mirrors thinking ‘where is he’.” Herrman Gassner was the leading group N driver after day1. During day2 he climbed all the way from 9th to 5th, but after that slip he was now 10th! Such Gassner may well be the only Mitsubishi Lancer driver who reached the finish without improving his overall position over the leg1 results.

S1600 had their own remarkable battle. So far Citroen Saxo driver Sven Haaf and his navigator Michael Wenzel have managed 3 class wins in the first 4 German championship events. This is amazing as his opposition is far from dull. Plus Sven Haaf does so after a year’s break from competition! His regular opposition includes the 2003 German S1600 champion Carsten Mohe in a super sophisticated Renault Clio with launch control, fart control and whatever other gadgets you could imagine, Opel fan Horst Rotter in a Corsa, coming fresh from class victory in the famous Nürburgring 24h race and of course Suzuki works test driver Nicky Schelle in a full blown works Suzuki Ignis. On the Saarland Rallye the S1600 battle should become even more interesting. The reigning Belgian Champion Pieter Tsjoen was a welcome guest in another one of the high tech Clios. As the Ypres Rally is an ERC scoring round, he will not be allowed to start there with his own Toyota Corolla WRC. Tsjoen is basically forced to rent an S1600 Clio if he wants to start his famous home event and he came to Saarland to learn the car.

Sven Haaf on SS6

Sven Haaf took a narrow lead from the word go, but then decided to make things more interesting. Well, Sven didn’t sound bored when he described his 5th gear flat out spin on SS6 on a narrow road lined with massive trees! Amazingly he lost no more than 15.3s to the fastest S1600 time on that stage, but so hot was the battle that these 15.3s dropped him from 1st to 4th at the end of leg1. Even more amazing, day2 kicked off in heavy rain on the famous 11.51km “Wahlener Platte”. This stage came to fame when in similar conditions in 1983 Walter Röhrl went off in his works Lancia Rally 037, was stuck for 15 minutes and binned an almost certain Saarland Rallye victory in the process! Sven Haaf, maybe a nut case for even attempting to attack on Wahlener Platte in these conditions, proved what he is made of: only this first 11.51km stage and he was back from 4th overnight into the S1600 lead!

Throughout the treacherous day Sven’s stage times were consistant and fast without putting a foot wrong. However in the 3rd from last stage he collected a mysterious rear puncture. When asked at service why the tyre deflated, Sven replied: “If only I would know – honestly I have no idea! But worse even, this was the longest stage of the rally and we spent about 20km with a tyre ripped to pieces. We lost 1m20s.” Still, in the overall picture it was a convincing show by the Citroen Deutschland driver. Despite this time loss, he still came 2nd in S1600, beaten only by the guest “learner driver” Pieter Tsjoen. Pieter deserves full credit for this result. Like Armin Schwarz, he came to test and experiment and he left with the winner’s award in his hand – Congratulations!