When the Subaru World Rally Team arrived on the French island of Corsica 17 years ago last week, there wasn’t much for the Anglo-Japanese squad to smile about.
Petter Solberg was fourth in the championship chase following round 10 of 14 – he’d retired after running out of fuel in Italy a fortnight earlier. And Prodrive’s active dampers had been left at home after that troubled Sanremo outing.
And then shakedown was stopped after a significant shunt for Solberg’s Subaru. Significant enough to twist the chassis and cut communications to one Corsican village as the Impreza WRC2003 used a telegraph pole to save it from a 180metre tumble into the sea.
Incredibly, Prodrive reckoned the damage was fixable. Just before dawn the next morning the car emerged from a local paint shop in the back streets of Ajaccio and the nightmare had become hardly a dream… but it was less of a nightmare. At least Solberg could start.
Understandably, the Norwegian’s mood was slightly more subdued than usual on an opening day where he nervously edged his way through the first six stages, eighth and 43sec off leader Sébastien Loeb.
What happened on Saturday was nothing short of extraordinary. Firstly, two of the main players in the event, Loeb and Ford’s Markko Märtin, went off the road on the first stage of the weekend.
Secondly, the rain came. And third? Solberg found his feet and his rain-dancing shoes. In the space of six soaking stages inland from Porticcio, he moved from eighth to first, with much of the time being found in an imperious run of three fastest times on Saturday afternoon.
He started the final day’s four stages with a 17sec advantage over François Duval and, quite simply, never looked like losing that lead. Pirelli’s mastery of the abrasive, wet island roads filled Solberg with the confidence to push a car which had, just days earlier teetered on the brink of oblivion.
Seventeen years ago today, Solberg stepped from a car that was driveable – but far from straight – and added a couple more dents to an already kinked Subaru.
He danced on the roof to celebrate a most unlikely win that hadn’t just left the watching world slack-jawed, but had also powered him into the thick of a championship fight he would win just over a month later.