First Shakedown Of Our GC8 Impreza Rally Car
Author: Tom Magnay, Photo/Video: BlendLine Magazine
A crisp, autumnal morning greets us as we roll into the rally testing complex we're testing at today.
Nestled on the edge of a wind farm in remote mid Wales, the Forest Experience Rally School is a cut above the rest when it comes to real-world testing of a rally car in genuine "Welsh" conditions, with tree lined gravel roads topped with loose dust (which quickly turns to slippery mud after rainfall).
Once we're into the secure area, we lock the gates behind us with a resounding "clunk" that reassures us that we're not going to have anything else sharing the road with us today.
The Rally School is set on a hillside outside Carno, and having spent many a cold, wet and muddy day here before, I know we're lucky with the dry conditions that we've got on this occasion.
Usually the school is a hive of activity but alas in the current era it has had to curtail its normal program of events due to Covid. Ordinarily the school plays host to a variety of high octane exploits, such as rally driving experiences for novices through to 1-2-1 tuition for experienced drivers wishing to refine their skills. Professional teams can also bring their cars for limitless testing, and the weeks before Wales Rally GB the school is normally full of R5 and WRC cars testing prior to the world championship event. TV shows also frequent the facility, as the backdrop is picturesque and offers amazing shots for motor related filming.
Today though, we're taking full advantage of the deserted complex, and having secured the place for a full day to test a new addition to the stables, the sound of a racing engine start-up from cold is one I have missed!
I'm here today with an old friend of my own, and an old friend of BlendLine - Mr Sion Ellis, an admirer and collector of Subarus and a fellow rally driver. Sion and I both have an interest in this latest acquisition, a RHD GC8 Impreza with an interesting history. After the usual relaxed banter and a cup of coffee, we unload the car from the trailer and take a good look around it. Sion has had the car at his Automax premises in Dolgellau some 45 minutes north of the testing complex, so he's had chance to check it over and asses the new purchase over the previous few weeks. I'd not seen it before so we had a chat around the car and a talk about things we might like to improve or develop, pointing and nodding as we go.
The car is based on a four door GC8, it benefits from the usual safety improvements you expect to see on a rally car: Rollcage, fire extinguisher, race seats and harnesses, and is stripped of its carpet and any unnecessary trim. Engine-wise it a lightly tuned two litre turbocharged boxer engine you would expect to find in this era of Impreza. A turbo upgrade and competition exhaust system which, now the car is running, is emitting a loud bark that all rally fans can recognise. The white paintwork, flaking in places, sets off the gold 15" Speedline gravel wheels a treat, and a set of gravel tyres have been fitted up by the boys at Automax. The car sits on an adjustable set of coilovers which have been set up for loose surface competition.
Sion sets off on a sighting lap (highly necessary here, where branches, trees and rocks can often fall right on the line) and to bring the car up to temperature before returning to the cabin at the centre of the complex. The school has around 7 miles of uninterrupted stages to enjoy, the loop we are going to use today is circular and is just under three miles long.
By the time Sion comes back from his run I'm another coffee down, and its time for me to jump in the pilot seat for my first shakedown of the car. Initial impressions are good, we're aware of a noisy rear damper fairly early on and add that to the mental checklist of things to assess later. The stages are beautiful, barely touched due to the lack of high speed rally traffic in the weeks prior and even with a layer of gravel and dust on top, although that soon shifts by the time we've done a few loops. As my confidence with the car grows, naturally the lap times get quicker and the rooster tail of dust behind the car gets bigger!
Taking it in turns to drive, we get to lunchtime and its time for a bite to eat and some adjustments on the car. A raise of the suspension ride height is agreed and we set about with that, chewing our sarnies as we make our way around the car making small changes. Basking in the relative warmth of the overcast but pleasant day, the car is ticking itself cool sat on axle stands on the rectangular patch of concrete outside the cabin.
Having spent some time owned by Knockhill Circuit, the car was then bought sold on once or twice before being bought by a Scottish chap where it sat unused in his collection for a few years prior to it joining our fleet. Some late night YouTube-rabbit-holing shows a few videos and photos of the car being used in the late 90s and early 2000s in national rallies.
With wheels back on the ground, lunch (and more coffee) consumed, fuel tank replenished and oil levels checked, its time for the afternoon run.
The changes we have made have improved the balance of the car in the corners with weight transfer now more exaggerated by the raised suspension, allowing the car to behave in a more predicable manner, whereby we can now carry more speed on the fast sections of the stage. We've also run the loop in both anti clock-wise and clockwise formats to stop ourselves from becoming "too" familiar with the layout - something a racing driver can enjoy but not a luxury we have in rallying with often just one or two passes of a stage in an event.
Standing at the edge of the track, while Sion takes some repeated laps of the stage, I can't help but smile at the noise of the Subaru engine clattering through the trees. It's an unbeatable sound, and each time the car roars into view, exhaust barking, turbo chattering, car skipping over the gravel with the weight shifting around as the car is braked down to a near standstill for a big 90 left, I wince as gravel flies around on the floor next to me and a large rock is propelled from the rear wheel into the air. I love rally cars!
By mid afternoon we have found a good rhythm and run the car enough to be satisfied with the engine and transmission, and in fairness it has run without fault through quite a continuous day of testing, and with the complex being based on the side of a hill with a long climb, followed by a big drop and a large braking section (whichever orientation you drive the loop) and the car has stood up to the test very well, so we load the Impreza back onto the trailer, pleased with the days developments.
At the time of the shakedown, the lockdown restrictions in the UK were being eased heading into the autumn, and the rallies that we had planned with the Subaru were all going ahead. Alas as we hit the end of the year, two of our intended events were postponed, one of which we are still set to compete in which now takes place in October, the second running of the Chester Rally Revival, a nostalgic road and stage based rally which has an appreciative nod to the 1990s Network Q Rallies on which car like this truly cut their teeth in motorsport.
This left an abundance of time over the winter to further improve the car, so a full respray has been carried out at Automax as well as some different panels and rear spoiler (the car now has the correct lower level spoiler rather than the STI type which was fitted previously). Here's hoping the latter part of 2021 bring us some event where we can use this awesome car where it was intended - rallying flat out in the forest!