Monday, November 23, 2015

Perfect and Podium-less

3rd and 4th Generation WRX STIs together
Last year when Subaru Rally Team USA started their RallyAmerica and Global Rallycross schedules, uncertainly was in the air.  2015 marked the debut season for the 4th Generation WRX STI platform, the new face of the team.  After years of success with the previous generation and implementing design concepts learned from competition in rally and rallycross, the new car was only proven in testing, not on the course.  There's always risk involved with a change like this and with trying new things.  It can be a game of dominoes, strengthening one part and transferring stress to others is a gamble that can either find a lot of speed or can cause unforeseen issues when you least expect it.

However, after the dust settled from all the racing that both disciplines endured, there were two starkly different results.  David Higgins and Craig Drew not only found gobs of success with their new home, but the duo went on to finish with an unprecedented result: a Perfect RallyAmerica Season!  This feat had not been accomplished since 1984 when John Buffum became the first to ever do it.  No major breakdowns, no issue the team couldn't overcome to achieve a result other than the best.  Even through unpredictable conditions like the snow and ice in Missouri, through intense competition at New England, and technical issues in Oregon, the #75 car made it to the top of the podium for all eight events. 

With this kind of relentless success, one would expect a similar result with the rallycross program.  One look at the outcome of the GRC standings shows a different story.  From a team that was becoming accustomed to making it to the podium last year, even winning their first outright victory at DirtFish Rally School in 2014, seeing the trouble-ridden results is surprising.  While technical issues and design flaws threw problems at the team race after race, the team also battled tough door-to-door competition that knocked podium contenders out of the fight in a game of the worlds most expensive bumper cars.  Even after the frustrated team took time off to regroup and assemble the largest cast of Subaru cars ever seen at the STI-Sponsored GRC event in Los Angeles, bad luck and unfortunate on-track mishaps prevented the team from achieving any shiny hardware.

So what caused the seemingly inverted results?  How could one team backing both disciplines have such obviously contrasting seasons?  Part of it could easily be explained by a different set of variables the cars face.  With Higgins and Drew in the RallyAmerica series, the competition is battling the clock.  Lasek, Isachsen, and Pastrana go door-to-door with their competition which can cripple cars as they try to reel in the leaders.  Sprinkle in some unfortunate red-flag restarts and success is easily thwarted.  This contrast doesn't just mean that the racing is different, but it also means that the cars need to be different.  One part on the Championship-winning Subaru of Higgins and Drew might not be tough enough for the full-contact world of GRC.  Track conditions have been much more demanding and punishing with rallycross while the RallyAmerica series is driven on public roads that are typically more forgiving (except for those sharp tire-puncturing rocks every now and then).  This isn't to say that rally is easier than rallycross, but there are so many incalculable parameters to consider when your competitor is next to you instead of waiting to start their turn off the line.  Off the line, Subaru's Rallycross machines have put down impressive times, often landing in the Top 5 of the pack, so the cars themselves are quick and balanced.  Throw in the rest of the bumper-cars GRC competitors and obviously there's a lot more to overcome than just jumps and turns.

While the results of both disciplines may say "Subaru is better at Rally than Rallycross", the story of these two programs reveals very different obstacles to overcome.  For the Rally team, their success this year will be hard to top.  Things don't really get any better than a perfect season, so they'll be building on their winning streak and continuing to fight for the top.  For the Rallycross team, the upcoming 2016 Season will be very similar to their 2014 Season, learning from mistakes and developing the cars to run more on performance than luck.  This will hopefully lead to finding the podium again... and with more consistency, too! 

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