Ah, New Zealand! A 'winter champions' title for CitroÃ«n-Michelin in honour of its wins in Monte Carlo and Sweden; a splendid one-two for Ford-Michelin in Mexico, a stone's throw from the USA, an important market for both partners; fastest times...
Ah, New Zealand! A 'winter champions' title for Citroën-Michelin in honour of its wins in Monte Carlo and Sweden; a splendid one-two for Ford-Michelin in Mexico, a stone's throw from the USA, an important market for both partners; fastest times on all three rounds so far for Peugeot-Michelin to reveal the potential of its brand new 307 WRC. the appetite of Michelin's WRC partners has proved insatiable so far into the 2004 season. And going into the distant Rally New Zealand, they currently monopolise the top three positions in both the Makes' and Drivers' championships, while Mitsubishi- Michelin continues to develop its fledgling Lancer WRC04.
A leading fixture in the calendar ever since its promotion to WRC status back in 1977, Rally New Zealand has always stood out as a competitors' favourite, in spite of the interminable hours of flying time necessary to get out there and back. But as soon as the drivers see the country's beckoning, flowing stages, all memory of the outward journey dissipates. In an instant, the thrill of giving a free rein to their driving skill takes over, as does the prospect of a spectacular three-day showdown, a festival won six times in the last eight years by a Michelin runner.
This year, the suspense will be further spiced up by the fact that all teams will now be present with the very latest evolution of their car following the homologation on April 1st of the 2004 versions of the Xsara WRC and the Focus WRC. Ford's team-leader, Estonia's Markko Märtin, takes time to look back at his Mexican victory in March and talk about the role that tyres could play in New Zealand...
Markko Märtin (Ford-Michelin driver): "A one-two result in Mexico for Ford was of course hugely satisfying for Ford. We also managed reasonably well with the new ruling that now sets a maximum quota of tyres for each rally*. Even when surprise storms made the going slippery on the opening day, my selection of ninety tyres allowed me to fit the ideal product practically throughout.
"That said, it is still very difficult to nominate tyres ahead of rallies that are new. Every type of surface is unique. They can be more or less abrasive and, since we are not allowed to carry out pre-event testing in non-European rallies - and this will again be the case this summer in Japan -, it is impossible to know what the optimum choice is ahead of the event. In such cases, a slightly bigger allocation would maybe go some way to alleviating this problem.
"For the moment, however, my attention is entirely focused on New Zealand. Nominating tyres for this event was easier than for Mexico because we naturally have a better idea of what to expect. I say easier, but still not simple. The number of tyres we can take  is still low and the conditions can go a number of ways. You could speculate, say, on an entirely dry rally, but what if it rains for three days? And that works the other round too of course. Alternatively, you could take a bit of everything to try and cover all situations, and that's what I've done for NZ. But then you run the risk of finding yourself without the right product if conditions prove uniformly wet or dry. I hope I haven't compromised my chances even before the start, because you can't come back on your choice...
"The New Zealand stages themselves offer bit of everything. To begin with they are often very cambered and, in dry weather, their surface can be as hard as concrete. Tyre durability is then important and you can find yourself having to manage your tyres over the longer groups of stages. But the terrain can also get very muddy if the start is preceded by a long spell of rain.
"Its flowing stages also make it a fast rally of course. So you need stability at high speed from your tyres, as well as precise, immediate response to instructions from the steering wheel. New Zealand also calls for more lateral grip than an ultra fast sprint like Finland.
"Finally, there's the recurrent subject of the importance of start order here! I will be second on the road on Day 1 and it's undeniably preferable of course to start further down the order if it's dry because the first cars tend to sweep a cleaner line for the following competitors. This disadvantage is of course annulled in the wet. But in any case, all the favourites will be more or less running together at the front end of the field on the opening day this year. So I don't see this as a big problem."
(*) Since the 2004 Swedish Rally, the total number of tyres a driver can nominate for a given rally is limited to 10 times the number of tyre change opportunities programmed.
For New Zealand: 10 x 6 changes = 60 tyres per driver for the rally.