WRC

Rally New Zealand: Ford leg one summary

New tyres inspire Gardemeister recovery in New Zealand BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen ended today's opening leg of the Rally New Zealand in sixth. After a difficult morning on slippery roads, the Finns' ...

New tyres inspire Gardemeister recovery in New Zealand

BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen ended today's opening leg of the Rally New Zealand in sixth. After a difficult morning on slippery roads, the Finns' performance was transformed by a new untried tyre construction and they set consistently fast times to climb the leaderboard in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.

This fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship is traditionally a drivers' favourite and this year is proving no exception. Today's opening leg was based around the small town of Paparoa, almost 150km north of Auckland on New Zealand's North Island. Two loops of four speed tests covered 129.22km and the route was so compact that more than half its distance was competitive.

But before the action began in earnest today, the rally began with a spectacular start ceremony in Auckland's harbour area last night. The City of Sails and its trademark Sky Tower, the tallest building in the southern hemisphere, provided a stunning backdrop as dancers offered a Maori challenge to drivers from the top teams. Gardemeister accepted the challenge for BP-Ford, rubbing noses with a Maori warrior in the traditional way of greeting.

Overnight rain compacted some sections of loose gravel and there were damp patches as competition began. However, clear blue skies and unusually high early autumn temperatures, which almost reached 30C this afternoon, made perfect conditions for spectators and hot work for drivers and co-drivers.

Fast, flowing and smooth cambered gravel roads, which weaved through green and verdant farmland, encouraged competitors to attack. But New Zealand's long dry summer has left a liberal covering of dry stones on the road surface. For Gardemeister, third in the start order by virtue of his position in the championship standings, this proved a handicap.

While the damp and sometimes muddy opening test offered good grip, the remaining three special stages of the morning loop proved very slippery. As the temperatures climbed, the roads dried and the Finn encountered more and more loose gravel on the surface. The early starters swept away the stones, leaving a cleaner and faster driving line for those behind.

"I had good grip on the first stage, which was quite humid and damp, but the next three tests were difficult," said 30-year-old Gardemeister. "I couldn't find a good line because the roads were drier and there was a lot of loose gravel. I tried to push and stay on the line that the first two cars had created, but it wasn't easy because after only two cars there wasn't really a clean line to follow."

The Castrol-branded Focus RS was eighth at the midpoint service. The Finn opted for harder compound Michelin rubber this afternoon, using a new construction that BP-Ford has not yet tested. A combination of the tyres and cleaner roads transformed Gardemeister's performance. He set top four times on three of the four stages to climb to sixth, just 5.4sec behind fifth-placed Chris Atkinson.

"The grip was fantastic this afternoon. We made an excellent tyre choice and pushed hard. Everything felt better and we set some good times. My brake pedal felt a little soft on stage seven but it wasn't a major problem. Tomorrow I will try to stay at the same rhythm and see if I can attack even harder," added Gardemeister.

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was happy with his driver's performance this afternoon. "Toni made a conservative tyre choice this morning. The new construction Michelin rubber made a big difference and Toni's stage times improved enormously. He must try to maintain the same level of performance tomorrow," added Wilson.

Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr ended the leg in 26th in their privately-entered Focus RS. Broken power steering near the finish of the opening stage meant the German driver had to tackle three more stages before repairs could be made. The time loss dropped Warmbold to 44th but a consistent pace this afternoon enabled him to regain lost ground.

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Championship leader Petter Solberg (Subaru) took an early lead which he held onto for three stages. But the Norwegian could shake off neither Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) nor Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot). The trio reached service midway through the day with Loeb heading Gronholm and Solberg but they were covered by just 0.8sec. Loeb was sensational through the afternoon tests. He was fastest on three of the four stages to open a 23.1sec advantage over Gronholm. Solberg could not hold off a charging Francois Duval (Citroen), who opted for the same tyres as Gardemeister, and ended the leg 5.0sec ahead. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) again impressed and he lies fifth after claiming a first fastest time in the WRC on the final stage. Gig Galli (Mitsubishi) ran as high as sixth before alternator problems this afternoon dropped him to 10th. Janne Tuohino (Skoda) incurred a 50 second penalty after his team had to fit a replacement electronic control unit in the engine moments before the start. The Finn is 12th.

Tomorrow's Route

The bulk of the second leg is located in the same area close to the Paparoa service park and is the longest of the rally. After leaving service at 09.00, competitors face two loops of three speed tests before returning to Auckland for two passes over the spectacular floodlit super special stage at Manukau. Two stages from the first loop are repeated in the second and the opening 21.35km Waipu Caves test is new to the rally. Drivers face 139.49km of competition before the final overnight halt in Auckland at 20.30.

-frs-

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team