Countdown to Rally New Zealand
WRC round 5 of 13
The race for the 2010 World Rally Championship heads to the Southern Hemisphere next week for Rally New Zealand. With four events run, Sebastien Loeb is comfortably clear in the drivers’ standings after winning the last three rallies in his Citroen Total World Rally Team C4 WRC.
Loeb was victorious the last time the championship visited New Zealand in 2008 but the rally route has changed substantially since then. As well as switching to a new base in Auckland after three years in Hamilton, the event’s opening day - the longest of the rally - includes a return to the stages north of New Zealand’s largest city, which have not appeared in the country’s WRC qualifier since 2005.
Run in the Whangarei and Kuipara districts on Friday 7 May, the stages use smooth and compact gravel roads, which are almost akin to Tarmac in places due to the fact they have to carry a flurry of heavy commercial traffic when not being used by rally cars.
Following four stages, crews have a remote service in Whangarei before tackling a further four tests and then the run through the 1.5-kilometre all-asphalt stage in Auckland’s Domain Park, last used on Rally New Zealand in 1990, prior to the service halt in the city’s Queen’s Wharf.
Saturday’s action takes the competitors south to the Franklin and Northern Waikato areas for two loops of four stages including two runs through a superspecial at the Hampton Downs race circuit just south of Auckland, where the day’s remote service will take place.
The final day on Sunday is the rally’s shortest, consisting of 81.70 competitive kilometres over four stages. The action is centres south west of Auckland and includes two passes through the classic Whaanga Coast stage, which runs alongside the Tasman Coast. Remote service is in the picturesque town of Raglan. The first car is due to reach the ceremonial finish in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour at 1500hrs.
Who’s going to win?
While Loeb is currently the main of the hour in the WRC, there are several drivers competing on the Auckland-based rally determined to put a stop to the six-time champion’s winning streak.
Petter Solberg, who is armed with an ex-works C4, moved into second place in the championship table following his third podium finish of the year in Turkey. Afterwards, he said his restricted budget was forcing him to be more conservative in order to avoid risking excessive damage to his privately-run car. With New Zealand’s roads smoother and therefore less punishing, Solberg’s challenge could prove more potent next week.
Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala were on course for giving Ford a one-two finish on Rally New Zealand until a disastrous final morning (Hirvonen punctured while Latvala crashed) put them out of the reckoning and handed the advantage to Loeb and Citroen.
Finn Hirvonen won the season opener in Sweden in February but has, thus far, been unable to replicate that winning edge. New Zealand’s roads are reminiscent, in places, to the stages in Hirvonen’s homeland and a victory would do his hopes of landing his world crown no end of good.
Despite his off in Turkey, Latvala continues to impress his bosses at Ford by following his no-risk strategy. Although that will count against rally wins, Latvala will still be expected to demonstrate a strong degree of pace in order to beat Citroen’s number two, Dani Sordo, and maximum Ford’s manufacturers’ championship score.
Sordo arrives in New Zealand a man under pressure. He’s yet to score a podium finish this season and failed to finish the last round in Turkey when he went off the road on the final morning. To make matters worse, Citroen Junior Team driver Sebastien Ogier has had the beating of the Spaniard for u of the season.
Ogier was hugely impressive in Turkey and was leading when he picked up a puncture. New Zealand wasn’t originally on the Frenchman’s schedule but such was his impressive start to his campaign, Citroen chiefs worked to secure additional funds to enable him to take part.
With team-mate Kimi Raikkonen skipping the rally, the focus and attention of Citroen’s second string will be entirely on Ogier.
Briton Matthew Wilson is targeting a top five finish in his Stobart M-Sport Focus, while Norwegian team-mate Henning Solberg will be looking to return to the top 10 after a frustrating Rally of Turkey.
Federico Villagra completes the World Rally Car contingent in his Munchi’s Focus.
As well as the main WRC, Rally New Zealand is a counting round of the Production Car World Rally Championship and new-for-2010 Super 2000 World Rally Championship, which are led by Armindo Araujo and Xevi Pons respectively. Araujo hasn’t nominated New Zealand as one of his scoring rounds so Subaru driver Toshi Arai, the highest-placed PWRC runner competing on the event, will be looking to take advantage in the absence of his rivals. Pons, meanwhile, has won the opening two SWRC events in his Ford Fiesta.
While there are no New Zealand drivers in World Rally Cars, there are several capable of running at the sharp end of the Group N classification. They include Pirelli Star Driver Hayden Paddon, Emma Gilmour and Richard Mason. Gilmour and Mason have been handed wildcard entries by the event organisers to chase PWRC points, while Paddon is chasing an expanded programme of WRC rallies this season.
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