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...
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.
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.
"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!"
"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."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
"As New Zealand is a very fast rally, with smooth roads, it tends to favour a stiff car set up, which gives the driver lots of confidence at high speed. However, in contrast, grip is always at a premium on gravel rallies and stiff suspension produces less grip than a soft setting. As a result, we'll be aiming for the perfect compromise between those two conflicting demands - ideally we want to achieve the handling of a sports car, but the ride of a limousine! We were pleased with the debut of the car in Mexico and its performance and reliability were all we had hoped for - it could so easily have been a winning debut. The specification of the Subaru Impreza WRC2004 for New Zealand will be very similar to that of the Mexico cars and having completed the North American event, we go to New Zealand with far less questions. "
Between the rallies
With almost four weeks since the conclusion of Rally Mexico, Petter Solberg has been busy. In addition to completing a promotional tour in China for a team sponsor, the Norwegian has been on two skiing holidays with his family and friends. His two-year-old son Oliver is fast becoming the best skier of the group and a couple of weeks ago the fearless youngster made it all the way down a slalom run with his dad!
Mikko used the time to work on his historic car collection, and in particular to help his father rebuild a rally car he used to race in the early 1980s. A winning car in Finland in its day, his father still has the trophies to show the car's success and the keen duo have been working to restore it to its former glory. Away from cars, Mikko enjoyed some sauna evenings with his friends near to Jyvaskyla, spent time with his fiancé Karoliina, and has concentrated on improving his fitness.