WRC

Rally New Zealand: Round four preview

Pre-Event Shakedown Defending champion Marcus Gronholm proved quickest during shakedown ahead of the Propecia Rally New Zealand that starts tomorrow. Despite reports that Peugeot were having difficulties with their new 307 model car, Gronholm...

Pre-Event Shakedown

Defending champion Marcus Gronholm proved quickest during shakedown ahead of the Propecia Rally New Zealand that starts tomorrow.

Despite reports that Peugeot were having difficulties with their new 307 model car, Gronholm and team-mate Harri Rovanpera were the quickest during the shakedown test near Helensville, north-west of Auckland.

It is the only test for the teams before the start of the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship with two stages at the Manukau Super Stage tomorrow evening.

Gronholm clocked 2:26.0 for the 4.51km shakedown at Komokoriki Hill Rd, with Rovanpera only 1/10th sec behind.

World champion Petter Solberg (Subaru) followed with a best of 2:46.7 with current championship points leader Sebastian Loeb (Citroen) more than a second further back.

It proved a strong performance for the Peugeot team with their No 2 team drivers Henning Solberg and Daniel Carlsson were fourth and equal sixth fastest.

The drivers completed a number of runs over the shakedown test, and will complete their first-run reconnaissance over the stages in the Raglan region before driving back for the opening stages at Manukau City.

The Propecia-sponsored event starts with two super special stages at Manukau City on the evening of Thursday. The first full day on Friday is in the Kaipara region before returning for two further super special stages at Manukau City. Saturday's racing returns to Kaipara, with the last day in the Waikato region near Raglan. The final stage will be the internationally acclaimed Whaanga Coast, with the ceremonial finish in downtown Auckland city on Sunday afternoon.

Unofficial Times from Shakedown:

M Gronholm (Peugeot) 2:46.0, H Rovanpera (Peugeot) 2:46:1, P Solberg (Subaru) 2:46:7, 3; H Solberg (Peugeot) 2:47:6, S Loeb (Citroen) 2:49:1, D Carlsson (Peugeot) and C Sainz (Citroen) 2:49:2, F Duval (Ford) 2:49.3, K Sohlberg (Mitsubishi) 2:49:9, M Martin (Ford) 2:50:0, G Pinizzi (Mitsubishi) 2:50:9, M Hirvonen (Subaru) 2:51:5, A Warmbold (Ford) J Vitta (Ford)

Event Preview

Rally teams will cross the globe next week in preparation for round four of the FIA World Rally Championship, the 34th Rally New Zealand. Starting on Thursday 15 April, when competitors will complete two sprints around the Super Special stage at Manukau, the three day event will see the world's top rally drivers battle it out on some of the best gravel stages in the series.

Billed as a drivers' rally the event's smooth and flowing roads that run through luscious green countryside place few mechanical pressures on cars, instead the emphasis is on driver performance, flat out speed and nerves of steel.

Previously run on stages in both the North and South Islands, Rally New Zealand now follows a more compact route based around Auckland in the North Island. Maintaining its April slot at the beginning of the New Zealand autumn, the 2004 event will see a return to stages south west of Auckland, including the famous 29km Whangaa Coast stage, arguably one of the most scenic stretches of road in the Championship.

Also of particular interest this year are changes to the pre-event reconnaissance system. For the first time in the history of the WRC the familiar two-day two-pass recce will be replaced by another format known as Mille Pistes. The new system splits the recce, so that stages are driven once on Wednesday and Thursday, and for a second time on the mornings of each Leg before being tackled competitively in the afternoon. Rally New Zealand will be the only WRC rally in 2004 to adopt this format.

Comprising three legs and 395.50 competitive kilometres, Rally New Zealand includes 23 stages and a total distance of 1398.36km. While Legs one and two will be run in the countryside near to the Paparoa service park 140km north of Auckland, Leg three will be based 155km south of the North Island's capital around the Raglan service park.

Citroen

Citroën returned from its exploratory visit to the World Championship's most distant fixture last year with five points in the bag thanks to Sebastien Loeb's fourth place, a superb result for the Frenchman's maiden competitive outing to New Zealand. This year they're aiming high again especially as both crews will be 2004-specification machines featuring the latest developments recently homologated by the FIA on April 1st.

Ford

Ford BP Rallye Sport will debut the 2004 version of the Focus RS World Rally Car in New Zealand next week fresh from last month's magnificent 1-2 finish in Mexico. The car is an evolution version of the all-new Focus RS WRC which made its first appearance on the Rally New Zealand exactly 12 months ago. It successfully completed the FIA's approval procedure at the end of last month in readiness for its maiden competition outing on the smooth and fast gravel roads of New Zealand's North Island.

Markko Martin / Michael Park: "The roads are fantastic to drive on and I agree with those people who say they're among the best of the year. Victory in Mexico was a superb result and we need to follow that up by going to New Zealand and winning there as well. There's no reason why we can't do that. The 04 Focus has felt good in tests and I'm looking forward to getting the feel of it on a rally. There are no big changes, it's just a small evolution of the 03 car but it keeps us going forward and I know this is also a winning car," he said.

Francios Duval / Stefan Prevot: "For me it's one of the three most difficult rallies in the championship, along with Australia and Finland. The roads are fast and it's easy to lose time by not finding the right rhythm. I'm making progress all the time, both in my driving and in perfecting my pace notes, and two podium finishes from the first three rounds is a nice start to the season."

Peugeot

Currently 3rd overall in both the Manufacturers' and Drivers' Championships (the latter with Marcus Gronholm), Peugeot goes to Round 4 of the 2004 WRC season determined to improve its position. The French team has performed well in past years on the Rally of New Zealand, an event that gives pure driving skill a chance to come to the fore. Its four most recent visits have been rewarded with three outright wins, including two one-two finishes!

Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: Our car has already shown it is quick and, after all the work we have just put in, we should be competitive in New Zealand. I am looking forward to the start very much," enthuses Marcus Gronholm whose record boasts three wins in Auckland from four starts! "It goes without saying that I enjoy this rally and I think we have a real chance again this year."

Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietilainen: After his participation in Rally Mexico, this will be Harri Rovanpera's second outing of the year with the Peugeot 307 WRC. The Finn has already scored two podiums in New Zealand with Peugeot. The first was in 2001 when he finished 3rd with the 206, plus a second with the same car in 2002 when he finished 2nd overall.

Subaru

The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in New Zealand, to be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen). Petter Solberg has contested the event four times previously. Having finished third last year, the reigning world champion will be looking to improve on this personal best New Zealand result. Driving the second Subaru entry, Finnish driver Mikko Hirvonen has contested the event only once before. The young Finn will be aiming to score more points for the Subaru team and gain further experience in an Impreza WRC.

Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "In terms of the new car, Mexico was very good rally and the Impreza WRC2004 certainly looked promising. I was very disappointed of course with what happened at the end of the first day, but it was great to take so many stage wins and show the new car's potential. Mexico was a well-organised event and I hope we go back. The roads were very nice to drive on and I had a good feeling behind the wheel. I'm happy with my position in the overall standings in the Championship now and I'm feeling confident ahead of New Zealand. It's going to be an interesting event. The launch of the new Ford and Citroen will put a bit of pressure on those teams and as I was third there last year I'm hoping for an even better finish this time around. In terms of strategy, I'll be starting fifth on the road, so it's very unlikely I'll be leading after the first day. It'll probably be someone further down the starting order, as the front cars will be doing a lot of road sweeping. I'll be happy with a safe, trouble-free end to the first day, then, like my normal strategy, I plan to go faster on Saturday and, if I have to, flat out on Sunday. It's been a while now since the last event, so I can't wait to get going!"

Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: "I was very happy with the result in Mexico. It was the first time this season I won points for myself and I enjoyed a nice, clean run with no problems at all. The new car felt very good. Petter thinks it's a very fast car, but I think I've still got some things to learn before I can get the best out of it. New Zealand is a fast event and that suits my driving style more than slow and twisty stages so I think this rally should see some improvements for me. Last year I found the event very difficult, I was the first car on the road and it was very slippery as I was sweeping the tracks for those behind. But, this year we have a new car and a new road position that is better. We'll have to wait and see what happens."

Mitsubishi

After scoring points in Mexico in its first gravel rally since returning to the FIA World Rally Championship, the Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports Team is looking forward to heading to familiar territory around Auckland

Gilles Panizzi / Herve Panizzi: "Of course we are trying to solve the problems we had in Mexico and I am confident the engineers have done a lot of work on this," said team-leader Gilles Panizzi, who has only previously competed in New Zealand once. "After this test in France, we move to Chateau Lastours for another five days on bad gravel, which should hopefully also help us. The car is getting better, especially with the general set-up and suspension settings, but we cannot find one second per kilometer in each test. But I am happy with the team and engineers; there is a very competitive feeling and I am looking forward to New Zealand. Of course I hope to do a little better than in Mexico and I hope, hope, to win more points."

Kristian Sohlberg / Kaj Lindstrom: "I have some gravel testing in France before New Zealand and hopefully the car will be better than it was in Sweden. Again, the biggest thing for me is to get to the finish and hopefully we will have good reliability. I really like the roads in New Zealand, they are very fast and flowing and seem to suit my style."

Production WRC

The event also qualifies for the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship and all 20 of the registered crews will be competing, setting the scene for one of the most fiercely-contested events in the championship.

-fia/wrc-

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Harri Rovanpera , Gilles Panizzi , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Sébastien Loeb , Daniel Carlsson , Hervé Panizzi , Timo Rautiainen , Kristian Sohlberg , Michael Park , Mikko Hirvonen , Risto Pietilainen , Jarmo Lehtinen , Henning Solberg , Markko Martin , Kaj Lindstrom
Teams Citroën World Rally Team