McRae chases fourth victory in Rally New Zealand
The FIA World Rally Championship is full of contrasts and few can be greater than that facing the Ford Martini World Rally Team as it prepares for the Rally New Zealand (15 -18 July). Having endured searing temperatures during an early summer heatwave on the previous round in Greece last month, Ford drivers Colin McRae and Thomas Rådstrom must now adapt to the rain, mud and cold of a New Zealand winter.
Not that the climate change will have any effect on McRae behind the wheel of a Ford Focus World Rally Car. The 30-year-old Scot has won the event three times (1993, 1994 and 1995) and he and co-driver Nicky Grist unsurprisingly enjoy the fast, flowing gravel special stages through verdant green countryside that characterise the four-day rally, round nine of the 14-event series.
"This event provided my first victory on a world championship rally, so New Zealand obviously has great memories for me," said McRae. "The gravel roads are smooth and flowing, real drivers' stages and the type you can really get your teeth into. If you can develop the right rhythm from the start, you reach the finish on a real high.
"In terms of the championship, we really need a victory here. It won't mean the drivers' title is beyond us if we don't win but with just six rounds remaining we need to close the gap on those ahead of us in the points table," added McRae, who lies fourth. "It's a rally I really enjoy and we must concentrate hard on taking maximum points from an event like this which really suits us."
Rådstrom and co-driver Fred Gallagher will drive the second Ford Focus, the Swedish driver making his second appearance on the event after a fine seventh last season. "It's a very good rally for a driver. The roads are similar to those in Sweden and Finland, which I enjoy enormously. It was disappointing for me to retire so early in Greece but to lead the rally was a great confidence boost and if I can maintain the same sort of pace then I'll be looking towards a strong points-scoring result," said 33-year-old Rådstrom.
"We tested in Finland at the beginning of this month, the week before I carried out testing for our tyre partner, Michelin, and we have a three-day test planned in New Zealand before the recce. That all adds up to valuable time in the car and helps us develop the ideal set-up for the rally," added Rådstrom.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson recognises the importance of this event to the year as a whole. "I think we'll know after this rally whether we're in with a chance of winning the drivers' title or not. A poor result for Colin in New Zealand could effectively rule him out but we must remember that at the start of the season we never believed we would be talking about titles in what is a development year for the Ford Focus.
"Colin has a brand new car while Thomas will use the Focus that Colin drove in Greece and these will be the lightest gravel specification Focus that we've built," added Wilson.
Weather akin to last year, when torrential rain caused enormous floods and closed main roads linking Auckland with the northerly stages, will not be welcomed by anyone. But Ford Martini engineers must be prepared for a repetition of the rain and the difficulties that it can cause for drivers McRae and Rådstrom.
Surprisingly the potential pitfalls have little to do with the technologically advanced nature of the Ford Focus World Rally Car. It is simply a good old-fashioned case of a misted windscreen.
"The electrics and the wiring on the Focus are all waterproofed as part of the normal preparation of the car so heavy rain should not provide any trouble in those areas," explained Ford Martini engineer James Goodfield. "But if the rain is heavy enough it can find its way into the car and if the windscreen begins to mist up then obviously the drivers' visibility is reduced. The only solution is to try to seal up every orifice and prevent water from entering the cockpit area by any means at all."
The four-day rally is contained within North Island, each of the three legs visiting different regions. The opening leg takes drivers to the west coast for a day of stages around the town of Raglan (famous for the black sand on its beaches), although some of the more southerly tests used in 1998 are not on this year's schedule. Leg 2 heads north of Auckland for a tight cluster of stages around Maungaturoto before the final day's short journey south-east of Auckland for stages in Maramarua Forest.
Auckland will host the 1999 event for the first time, the city replacing its neighbour Manukau, traditional home to the event for many years. The start will be from the famous America's Cup village by the waterfront, more accustomed to hosting the cream of the yachting world than the world's best rally drivers. Manukau will, however, host the finish ceremony and a super special stage to begin the event, a test that will be repeated at the end of the first leg. Both will be held in darkness under floodlights. Drivers will tackle 401km of special stages in a total route of more than 1681km. Of the 27 stages, 11 will be repeated and leg 2 will be the most difficult with competitors tackling 174km of stages.
RALLY NEW ZEALAND ROUND 9 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP, 15 - 18 JULY 1999
Thursday 15 July: Super Special Auckland - Auckland
Start Auckland 17.00 SS1 Manukau Super 1 2.10km 18.15 Finish Auckland 19.25
Friday 16 July: Leg 1 (cont) Auckland - Auckland
Start Auckland 05.45 SS2 Te Akau North 1 31.83km 09.10 SS3 Te Akau South 11.00km 09.53 SS4 Mangatawhiri 1 6.52km 11.17 SS5 Te Hutewai 1 11.39km 11.32 SS6 Whaanga Coast 1 29.52km 12.00 SS7 Mangatawhiri 2 6.52km 13.50 SS8 Te Hutewai 2 11.39km 14.05 SS9 Whaanga Coast 2 29.52km 14.33 SS10 Manukau Super 2 2.10km 19.15 Finish Auckland 20.25
Saturday 17 July: Leg 2 Auckland - Auckland
Start Auckland 07.00 SS11 Waipu Gorge 1 11.24km 09.28 SS12 Brooks 1 16.15km 09.46 SS13 Paparoa Station 1 11.66km 10.14 SS14 Batley 19.89km 10.42 SS15 Ararua 31.95km 12.35 SS16 Cassidy 20.06km 13.28 SS17 Parahi 24.00km 15.01 SS18 Waipu Gorge 2 11.24km 15.59 SS19 Brooks 2 16.15km 16.17 SS20 Paparoa Station 2 11.66km 16.45 Finish Auckland 20.00
Sunday 18 July: Leg 3 Auckland - Auckland
Start Auckland 07.00 SS21 Te Akau North 2 32.23km 09.13 SS22 Ridge 1 8.60km 11.16 SS23 Campbell 1 7.49km 11.29 SS24 Ridge 2 8.60km 11.47 SS25 Campbell 2 7.49km 12.00 SS26 Fyfe 1 10.63km 12.43 SS27 Fyfe 2 10.63km 13.06 Finish Manukau 15.45
Rally total 401.56km