Following Thursday's super special in the city of Manukau, 54 competitors left Auckland parc ferme at 0530hrs this morning. Leg one, the longest of the event, comprised 141.92 competitive kilometres and nine stages. Apart from the super specials,...
Following Thursday's super special in the city of Manukau, 54 competitors left Auckland parc ferme at 0530hrs this morning. Leg one, the longest of the event, comprised 141.92 competitive kilometres and nine stages. Apart from the super specials, stages were based 140km north of Auckland.
The leg 1 action consisted of five forest stages plus two runs through the spectator super special at Manukau. The road surfaces were slightly damp in the morning, before drying out completely for the afternoon's stages. New Zealand is well-known for its fast and flowing gravel roads, and today's stages were typical of the Antipodean event. The rally ran to the 'Mille Pistes' system for the first time -- a style of rallying where the reconnaissance takes place early in the morning before the stages are driven competitively later in the day.
Conditions remained dry and warm all day. Air temperatures started at 17C this morning, rising to 22C by mid-afternoon. Stages were smooth, dry gravel with some patches of mud.
The day has seen three different leaders. Overnight front-runner Petter Solberg (Subaru) remained in front for two stages before Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) moved ahead. However, Gronholm rolled on the last corner of the next stage, dropping just 30 seconds but handing the lead back to Solberg. Then Harri Rovanpera (Peugeot) set a blistering time over the last Northland stage to move to the front. But his 1.0sec lead was not enough to hold off Solberg over the two final short stages and the Norwegian moved back ahead to lead the Finn by 5.0sec. Gronholm is just 0.2sec ahead of Martin with joint championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen), who suffered by 'sweeping' the roads as first car to start the stages, just behind. Team-mate Carlos Sainz lies seventh after brake problems and troubles with his car's launch control system.
After completing nine of 23 stages, Petter Solberg holds the overnight lead of Rally New Zealand. On the first leg of the competition Solberg put in an excellent performance at the wheel of his Subaru Impreza WRC2004 and collected four stage wins. On his fourth event with the Subaru team, Mikko Hirvonen gained more vital experience of the event and the Impreza WRC2004. He holds overnight 8th place, and is on target to collect more championship points on Sunday.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "I'm happy, we've had no major problems at all today. The new tyres from Pirelli have been very good, perhaps they were a little too soft on the long section (SS7), but I'm very happy with the general set up. We've had a good battle with Harri today, but Leg one is just a warm up. We'll see what happens tomorrow, that's when the real rally starts."
Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: "It's been a very encouraging day. I'm happier with what I've achieved today than my performance on the first day in Mexico. Looking at the state of my tyres after the stages, my driving is less aggressive now and is more effective. I've still got some way to go before I have a rhythm that I'm totally happy with on these stages, but I'm encouraged and looking forward to tomorrow."
Peugeot driver Harri Rovanpera has ended the opening leg of the Rally New Zealand in 2nd place, having taken the lead on SS7. His team mate Marcus Gronholm is third, after losing first place with a roll on SS6.
Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: "It was a stupid mistake," said Marcus. "My car went up onto two wheels in the same place last year, but this time we unfortunately went over. Some spectators eventually pushed us back, but we lost more than 30 seconds. It's disappointing, as we certainly have the pace to be in front. But there's still a long way to go and the car set-up feels good. We'll keep pushing!"
Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietilainen: "I really enjoyed today," said Harri. "I had a very good feeling with the car and I was able to push hard. It's been really fun to lead the rally, and we've been on the pace from the very start. I really like long stages and we were flat-out on all of SS7, which was 48 kilometres. I decided not to risk anything on the superspecial, so I think we are in a good position for tomorrow. I'm not changing anything on the car: it's perfectly fine as it is."
Ford's new Focus RS World Rally Car made a winning debut on the Rally New Zealand by claiming top honours on the opening speed test of this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The 2004 version of the Focus RS WRC maintained its strong start and Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park ended today's first leg just 0.2 sec from a podium position in fourth with team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot in sixth.
Markko Martin / Michael Park: "It was unbelievable," he said. "When we drove these stages early this morning in practice, the roads were totally damp and there was no loose gravel at all. Two hours later and the sun had dried everything and there was gravel everywhere. We had the right tyres but starting second on the road was hard work. It looked promising for us this morning when everything was damp but then it was so slippery."
Francios Duval / Stefan Prevot: "We make our notes at a slow speed compared to others and we had to pull over several times during practice to let other cars go by. It means we didn't always get the right line and therefore the right note and we also became caught in the dust from cars that passed us," said the 23-year-old Belgian.
Tonight the Xsaras of Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti returned to the Auckland Parc ferme lying in fifth and seventh positions respectively. Both Citroën drivers are determined to improve these very encouraging results during the two remaining legs.
Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: "I found my car is turning a bit too easily with the set-up I used," explained Seb. "As a consequence I'm cautious in corners not to put the back of the car in the gravel on the sides of the road. I am not using the full potential of the car. I'm sure this will be solved tomorrow morning at the first service."
Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti: "The changes made after the first loop went in the right direction but maybe not far enough yet. We still have small things to improve and I believe we have solved the brake problems by changing a few parts tonight."
The Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports team suffered the cruelest blow in the first section of the opening leg of Rally New Zealand and both Gilles Panizzi and Kristian Sohlberg were forced into retirement after the first run of this evening's super special stage. "Both cars have suffered the same electrical problem. It is too early to say the exact reason", commented MMSP Technical Director Mario Fornaris shortly after the cars retired.
Manfred Stohl, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution for the OMV World Rally Team, leads the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship contenders after the opening nine special stages of Rally New Zealand. The Austrian former Group N World Champion has set four fastest stage times in his Lancer and leads Argentina's Marcos Ligato and Mitsubishi's Dani Solà (5th) back in Auckland this evening for the registered championship.
Two non-registered Australian contenders lie third and fourth, Subaru Australia's Dean Herridge (30.5s off the lead) and Cody Crocker (31.9s off the lead). Arai (subaru), Baldacci (Mitsubihsi) and Atkinson (Subaru) round out the top eight.
Remaining Event Timetable
Leg two starts at 0530hrs, when crews will leave Auckland parc ferme for the first service of the day. Comprising a further eight stages and 138.84 competitive kilometres, the Leg is based around the Paparoa service park, 140km north of Auckland. Including two loops of four stages, the first starts at 1123hrs, and the final stage at 1657hrs. Mikko Hirvonen will start the Leg running third on the road, while Petter will be ninth.
For the rally period around the Auckland area sunny conditions are expected with maximums in the high-teens or low 20's.