After a spectacular ceremonial start in Auckland City centre last night, 81 competitors left Sky City parc ferme at 0600hrs this morning to begin round 12 of the WRC - Rally New Zealand. Today's first Leg took drivers 157kms South of Rally HQ to...
After a spectacular ceremonial start in Auckland City centre last night, 81 competitors left Sky City parc ferme at 0600hrs this morning to begin round 12 of the WRC - Rally New Zealand.
Today's first Leg took drivers 157kms South of Rally HQ to eight smooth and flowing gravel stages based around a central service area on the coast at Raglan. Weather conditions were perfect for spectators, with a dry and bright spring day and a temperature that peaked at 15 degrees centigrade. Predicting the right tyre for the largely dry stages proved a crucial factor in today's action. Although lead runners sometimes had to cope with more loose stones on the surface, the situation for most competitors was inconsistent, meaning plenty of experimentation throughout the day.
Like the last gravel round in Finland, the Peugeot team were in strong form and after 117kms of the 411km total, Richard Burns leads, with Harri Rovanpera second and Marcus Gronholm third. However the top-ten are very close together, and less than 20 seconds separates second and seventh places. The day also saw an excellent performance from Mitsubishi driver Jani Paasonen who was invited at short notice to stand-in for injured team driver Alister McRae, the young Finn holds fifth overnight. Good performances too from 555 Subaru team drivers Tommi Mäkinen and Petter Solberg. Mäkinen ended the day fourth, and will enjoy an advantageous road position tomorrow, while Petter build his speed throughout the day and finished in the best possible way by winning SS7 and SS8.
SS1 0858hrs Te Akau North (32.37km)
Fastest time: Burns (Peugeot) 17:50.4
2001 Rally NZ winner Richard Burns promised he'd push hard from the start here this year, and his performance on the first stage reflected this. SS1 saw a Peugeot 1-2-3. On the longest stage of the day Burns was six seconds faster that team-mate Harri Rovanpera who was second and nine seconds better that Marcus Gronholm who was third. Best of the rest was 555 Subaru driver Tommi Mäkinen in fourth, while his Finnish compatriot Jani Paasonen was fifth for Mitsubishi. Petter Solberg, who believed he had chosen tyres that were too hard, was seventh. Carlos Sainz lost a few seconds with a stall on the start line. Crews returned to the Raglan service after the stage.
SS2 1106hrs Maungatawhiri (6.52km)
Fastest time: Burns / Rovanpera (Peugeot) 3:41.3
Burns again, but this time he split the fastest time with Harri Rovanpera. Carlos Sainz was third through the 6.5km sprint. Subaru's Petter Solberg was fourth, and Tommi Mäkinen fifth. Skoda's Kenneth Eriksson became the first retirement of the rally. His Octavia WRC left the road early in the stage and was too badly damaged to continue. Both Eriksson and co-driver Tina Thorner were uninjured. Gronholm was only 10th quickest and complained of a hydraulic problem, he would have to wait until after SS4 for the next service.
SS3 1129hrs Te Papatapu 1 (16.62km)
Fastest time: Burns (Peugeot) 11:05.2
Three from three for Burns, although Rovanpera was right on his tail. Solberg was third and Colin McRae fourth. Looking at the overall positions, Burns extended his lead to 6.7 sec from second placed Rovanpera, Gronholm was third, just two seconds ahead of Solberg in fourth and Mäkinen in fifth. A disappointing stage for Toshihiro Arai, competing here in a Group N Impreza for the Spike Subaru team, when his car left the road 7.5kms from the start and became stuck. Despite their best efforts, Toshi and his co-driver Tony Sircombe were unable to get the car back onto the stage and they retired.
SS4 1202hrs Whaanga Coast - Reverse (29.60km)
Fastest time: Burns (Peugeot) 21:27.0
Burns continued to dominate the event and set another fastest time, once again with Rovanpera his nearest challenger and Gronholm third. The current world champion extended his overall lead to 14 seconds. Mitsubishi's Jani Paasonen was fourth - a brilliant performance considering the Finn, who is deputising for the injured Alister McRae, had never driven in NZ before. Colin McRae's rally ended when he misheard a pace-note and entered a corner in third rather than second gear. The Scot's Ford left the road and hit a fence post, suffering radiator damage and ending up stuck at the bottom of a bank. He was unable to re-join the road and retired. 555 Subaru driver Petter Solberg had a narrow escape when he slid wide and stalled his Impreza WRC2002 on a hairpin corner 18kms from the start. The car came to rest right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. Not stopping to enjoy the view, Solberg was quickly on the move again. After the group of three stages crews returned to Raglan for a 20-minute service
SS5 1353hrs Te Hutewai - Reverse (11.15km)
Fastest time: Paasonen (Mitsubishi) 7:59.8
Surprise star of the rally Jani Paasonen was quickest and celebrated the first WRC stage win of his career as well as Mitsubishi's first stage win since last year's Safari. The time moved the 27 year old Finn into third place overall, ahead of 2000 world Champion Marcus Gronholm who struggled to get traction on the slippery surface. Petter Solberg was second fastest with old team-mate Markko Martin third and current team-mate Tommi Mäkinen fourth.
SS6 1421hrs Te Papatapu 2 (16.62kms)
Fastest time: Gronholm (Peugeot) 10:37.7
On the final full length stage of the Leg, Marcus Gronholm took the win, his first of the rally, with Burns right behind and Rovanpera third. Solberg was best of the rest in fourth, with Markko Martin fourth and Tommi Mäkinen fifth. From there, crews returned to the Raglan service point ahead of the evening's spectator stage at Manukau.
SS7 1900hrs Manukau Super 1 (2.1km)
Fastest time: Solberg (Subaru) 1:21.3
The first of two passes through the head-to head Super-Special at Manukau saw a stage win for 555 Subaru driver Petter Solberg. The young Norwegian, who's always keen to put on a good show for the crowds, blasted around the figure of eight track 0.3 seconds ahead of Carlos Sainz who was second.
SS8 1930hrs Manukau Super 1 (2.1km)
Fastest time: Solberg (Subaru) 1:20.8
He did it again. This time master showman Solberg increased his winning margin and was the only driver to break under the 1m21sec mark. Not such a great stage this time for his short-circuit rival Carlos Sainz though, he hit a barrier with his Ford and dropped five seconds.
Technical talk - New Zealand Gravel
As a general topic of conversation, you'd be forgiven for giving 'gravel roads in New Zealand' a very wide berth. However, if you were to listen to drivers here on the rally there's very little else they want to talk about. Last year the unique flowing stages helped earn New Zealand the drivers' award for favourite rally. So just what is it that makes the gravel down under so special?
Jonathon Carey, 555 Subaru team Senior power-train engineer explains:
"The New Zealand stages are smooth, fast and the most cambered in the WRC. In simple terms I suppose you could liken the conditions to driving lengthways along a 6 metre wide speed-bump, so when setting up the suspension and differentials, we have to take into account a different driving style.
Drivers are able to use the camber to their advantage, especially around corners, where they can 'ditch hook' and use the inside slope as a sort of banking to help them keep the speed up - effectively sling-shotting them around the corner. Get it wrong though, and they can pay a high price. Drifting wide will put the car on the opposite camber, where the weight of the car will encourage oversteer and push the car out into the loose gravel on the outside.
When setting up the car for New Zealand we take these crowned roads into account, and make a number of adjustments to keep as much tyre in contact with the road as possible. As an example, we adjust the camber of the wheels so they sit straight on the curved stage, and to avoid wheels lifting off the ground we fit different roll bars, springs and dampers to allow for more movement in the suspension around corners."
Starts at 0600hrs when the crews leave Auckland Sky City Parc Ferme and drive 161kms North to the day's central service point in the town of Ruawai. From there they'll tackle the longest Leg of the rally, which comprises a marathon 10 stages and 204 competitive kilometres. The first car is expected back in Auckland at 2300hrs.