Kiwi Stephen Barker wins international rally shootout
Talented young New Zealand rally driver Stephen Barker has beaten stiff competition to win this year's Fiesta SportTrophy International Shootout held at M-Sport in the north of the United Kingdom over the past two days.
The 22-year-old from Kerikeri wins a 12-month work experience contract with M-Sport to work with the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team. Barker also has the chance to work in a number of different areas of the company, travelling to the European WRC events, attending press functions and driving at PR events.
Barker was the 2010 Rally New Zealand Rising Stars Scholarship winner and utilised the scholarship's fully-prepared Ford Fiesta rally car and professional mentoring to go on and win the two-wheel-drive championship category of this year's Vantage New Zealand Rally Championship. This success also earned Barker the 2010 New Zealand Fiesta SportTrophy, an annual award made possible with the support of key sponsors like Peter Johnston of Genuine Vehicle Imports and Auckland Ssangyong, and with that came the opportunity to contest the international Fiesta shootout at M-Sport's Cumbria headquarters.
Barker was regarded as one of the favourites to win the shootout title, but first he had to take on 17 other passionate, talented competitors, each having qualified for the shootout based on their performances in Fiesta SportTrophy championships around the globe. The 18 young men undertook a series of physical and psychological tests as well as a final driving challenge on a three kilometre stage at M-Sport's Greystoke Forest.
"Winning this title really has left me lost for words; I'm over the moon," said Barker after the announcement. "I have had a fantastic season in New Zealand and to win the championship in the same year was incredible, but this is something else altogether! I honestly couldn't wish for anything more and I can't wait to start.
He continued: "I've been working towards this all year. The fitness tests were my biggest concern, so when I did well in those tests, I was confident that I was in a good position."
Barker led the shootout after the first day's tests with the UK Fiesta champion Elfyn Evans and Swedish Fiesta champion Carl Ward tied in second place. But then Ward posted the fastest time on Thursday's test at Greystoke with Finn Jussi Kumpumaki the second quickest.
With all of their scores tallied, the final six candidates were interviewed by M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson, OBE, and BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver Mikko Hirvonen.
"After leading the points overnight all we needed to do was drive sensibly in the forest to secure a place in the final six for a chance to have an interview with Malcolm and Matthew Wilson and current Ford works driver Mikko Hirvonen," commented Barker, who was joined in the final group by Ward, Evans, Kumpumaki, Scotland's John MacCrone, and France's Pierre-Alexandre Perrin.
"The interview with Malcolm, Matthew and Mikko wasn't as intense as I expected and it was really good to be able to have a chat with those guys. But then the wait between the interview and the announcement was the most agonising part of the process. It was a very nervous half hour wait until the winner was announced. I was over the moon and temporarily lost for words when they called out my name as the winner."
M-Sport Managing Director Malcolm Wilson said: "This has been, without doubt, the most difficult FST International Shootout to judge so far and it was extremely difficult to pick a winner. All the finalists would have been very worthy winners and they have been the highest standard of candidates so far.
"However, in view of Stephen's limited experience, his high marks from yesterday and improvement over the two runs, we felt that he really deserved to win here today."
The first part of Barker's prize begins straight away when he gets the chance to take the wheel of the award-winning Ford Fiesta S2000 on Friday 19 November with BP Ford WRC driver Mikko Hirvonen in the passenger's seat.
"Now I am really looking forward to the opportunity to test with Mikko in the S2000 Fiesta; that will be an awesome experience. This is something I have only dreamt about growing up and now I have the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a truly fantastic piece of machinery. And from what I've been told at this stage, they want me to start my working contract in January."
"Everyone at Rally New Zealand who's been involved with our Rising Stars driver development programme is delighted to see Stephen do so well against competitors from all over the world. For me, as a sponsor with a strong personal interest, I'm very proud of Stephen's incredible achievement," said Rally New Zealand director and New Zealand Fiesta SportTrophy sponsor Peter Johnston.
"Stephen has shown huge hunger and determination to win this shootout. He has many exciting opportunities ahead with M-Sport and I'm sure he will make the most of these. It's also fantastic that his achievement reflects very positively for New Zealand rallying as a whole and Rally New Zealand's Rising Stars programme in particular. The Fiesta SportTrophy is an important stepping stone for any aspiring young rally driver and we hope it leads to more and bigger things for Stephen."
Barker returns to New Zealand over the weekend where he continues with his role in Kerikeri as a mechanic until his contract with M-Sport commences in January.