Richard Gets a New Ride
Rally champion Pat Richard took delivery of a pair of brand new $40,000 Subaru Impreza WRX STIs in late February. Within three months, he and his nine-member Rocket Rally Racing crew had converted one of these regular street vehicles into a much faster and much stronger beast that has already won its first rally and is now worth at least $100,000 more than it was before. But it was no easy task.
Richard says that “thousands” of man-hours of work were involved, leaving himself and the crew tired and drained. But it all became worth it when the car made a triumphant debut at the Rocky Mountain Rally, round 2 of the Canadian championship, in Alberta in late May.
“That was awesome,” he said of the Rocky Mountain win. “We’re pleased with where we’re at and a little surprised by what we have been able to achieve. And Subaru Canada is pleased too.”
It was in January that Subaru Canada announced its return to the sport as Richard, who won Canadian championships for Subaru in 2002 and 2004, was offered two new street cars, plus parts, technical and logistical support.
When the Imprezas arrived at Rocket Rally’s Squamish, BC, shop, they were in regular showroom stock specification. A WRX STI is a fast car — its 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder motor delivers 305 horsepower — and it regularly takes Production class honours. But Subaru and Richard wanted overall wins so the cars needed to be upgraded to “Open” class format.
The aim, of course, was to improve the car’s performance, but just as importantly, to make it stronger in order to survive the extremely rugged conditions in which it would have to operate.
After developing a work plan, Richard’s first step was to undress and bathe them. The cars were stripped to their bare metal frames, which were sent out for an “acid bath” to clean off any excess sealer, a necessary first step to prepare for re-welding. New roll-cages from Europe finally delivered in late March. Several other key components also had to be imported, including shocks and springs from Rocket Rally’s long-time Australian supplier, Drummond Motorsports. While waiting for the roll-cages, the team went to work on designing and building new parts for the motor, suspension, wiring harness, gearbox and brakes.
An Open-class rally car uses 15-inch wheels, whereas the production model’s are bigger. So Richard wanted the biggest brakes possible that would still fit on a 15-inch wheel, while having maximum cooling capacity for “sustained abuse over long periods of time.” Rocket Rally’s own fabrication facilities built many of the smaller brake and suspension parts, including brackets, rotors and bushings. Some larger parts were fabricated elsewhere to the team’s strict specifications.
At first, work proceeded on both cars, but eventually the focus shifted to the car for the Rocky Mountain to make sure it was completed in time. As the clock ticked down, Richard said, there were “a few weeks of stress.”
Richard already had a 2006 STI, so the new engine, gearbox and wiring harness were installed in that car for a test at the Olympus Rally in mid-April. There were a few teething problems, but the new components generally worked well. Richard and co-driver Alan Ockwell finished sixth.
Back in BC, the roll-cage — which meets the highest FIA standards — was finally installed, welded to the frame at about 40 different points for maximum strength and safety. And a custom fuel cell was placed low down in the chassis to improve the centre of gravity.
The rest of the car was then assembled including a kevlar underbelly for protection from rocks and stones. Everything was ready just a couple of days before the team headed to Calgary.
This rally version of the WRX STI has more power than the production model’s 305 hp, but not by a huge amount. Gains in power have been partially offset by the turbo restrictor that is mandatory in rallying. And Richard says he even “de-tuned” the motor slightly before Rocky Mountain to ensure it lasted. The biggest gain under the hood is in the torque, which has been increased by almost 70 percent.
Richard feels that the car still needs to be lightened. It is not yet down to the 2,800-lb. minimum weight limit. So he expects that it will still be a shade slower than the Hyundai Tiburon of rival Antoine L’Estage. He was quicker than Richard at Rocky Mountain on the first three stages, but then lost the left front wheel of his car.
“Development is an ongoing process. We won’t see the true performance (of the car) until the end of the year,” said Richard.
Meanwhile, a lot of work remains for the Rocket Rally crew. There’s the second factory car to finish. Richard is also planning to build two more WRX STis to the same specs for customer use. He says there are a couple of competitors who have already expressed an interest.
These cars will probably be rented on a rally-to-rally basis, but Richard says that if he were to sell one, the cost would likely range from $130,000 to $160,000. That’s up to four times more than the price-tag on the showroom floor!