BP-Ford finds consistency amid New Zealand's gravel Rally New Zealand (7 - 10 April) offers BP-Ford World Rally Team's drivers a taste of consistency for the first time this season after a highly varied start to the campaign. It is the second...
BP-Ford finds consistency amid New Zealand's gravel
Rally New Zealand (7 - 10 April) offers BP-Ford World Rally Team's drivers a taste of consistency for the first time this season after a highly varied start to the campaign. It is the second consecutive gravel round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the surface on which the bulk of the 16-event series is fought out and which takes competitors right through to late August before briefly switching to asphalt.
Vastly different conditions on the opening three rounds have provided a tough start to the 2005 season. Drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Možný have faced asphalt, snow, ice and rock-hard gravel to date. But the all-round versatility of the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has enabled the BP-Ford squad to claim a strong second in the manufacturers' championship while Gardemeister holds third in the drivers' standings.
The journey to New Zealand's North Island is the longest of the season for BP-Ford but the rally more than makes up for the seemingly endless hours spent in the air en route. The roads near the rally base of Auckland are widely regarded as the best in the championship. As smooth as a billiard table and gently winding through the lush, green countryside, they pose fewer mechanical demands than most gravel rallies and invite drivers to attack them.
Thirty-year-old Gardemeister has plenty of experience there and this will be his seventh start. He finished third in 1999 on his debut in a World Rally Car, a career-best result until claiming second in Monte Carlo in January on his maiden outing in his Castrol-branded Focus RS.
"The roads are fast and flowing and frequently the camber changes in corners which allows a driver to drift the car through bends more than on other rallies," said the Finn. "They can also be quite slippery if wet. This time of year is early autumn in New Zealand so the weather could be mixed, either dry and warm or showery.
"The last round in Mexico was my first on gravel in the Focus. The result wasn't as strong as I had hoped but the car felt good to drive and I learned a lot. I'm looking forward to driving it in New Zealand, which is a rally I really enjoy. It's quite like my home event in Finland, without the big jumps," he added.
Third place in the championship means Gardemeister will be third to start the opening leg. "When it's dry the roads have a lot of slippery loose gravel on the surface so it's better to start further back in the order, by which time the gravel has been swept away," he said. "Third isn't ideal but it's much better than first. The problem isn't so great in New Zealand as elsewhere. The rally is so fast and there aren't many tight corners, which is where a driver loses traction and grip on the loose stones."
Gardemeister has recovered from the heavy 'flu which affected him throughout Rally Mexico. "I've had a good couple of weeks in Finland since returning from Mexico. I've been running and walking to maintain my fitness and I feel much better now," he added.
In contrast to his team-mate's experience, Kresta has never competed in New Zealand before. However, lack of experience does not seem a handicap to the Czech driver, who ran as high as sixth overall in Mexico earlier this month before retiring his BP Ultimate-branded Focus RS.
"Every rally this season has been one of learning for me," said 28-year-old Kresta. "But despite this I scored driver points in both Monte Carlo and Sweden and was lying in the points in Mexico before retiring. I'm aiming for another points finish in New Zealand, but the most important aspect for me is to learn as much as I can about the event.
"I think the special stages will be fast and enjoyable to drive. I have been nominated here by Ford so it's important for me to aim for a good result to score manufacturer points. But I don't want to take any risks, especially early in the event, because it's also necessary for me to finish the rally to understand the nature of the roads and gain as much experience as I can," added Kresta.
* Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr aim to continue their progress after scoring a career-best seventh place in Mexico earlier this month. The German driver will be making his third appearance in New Zealand at the wheel of an M-Sport-run Focus RS. His best result was 19th last year. Argentines Luis Perez Companc and Jose Maria Volta will make their debut in a privately-run Focus RS. The Buenos Aires-based duo will also drive an M-Sport-prepared car on the first of a two-event programme, which ends with July's Rally Argentina.
* BP-Ford has nominated Michelin's Z pattern tyre for the event. Designed for a clear and hard surface, the Z tyre has a relatively compact tread pattern to ensure the maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the road for the best possible grip and traction. If the weather is wet or the roads have more loose gravel on them then expected, the team can cut the Z tyre to a ZA pattern. It is a more open tread, designed to penetrate the loose surface in search of firmer ground deeper down.
* Gardemeister celebrated his 30th birthday yesterday on a promotional tour in Australia. He was in Melbourne where he met V8 Supercar driver Jason Bright and visited the Australian's Castrol-backed Ford Performance Racing team. He then attended the Australian Rules Football clash between Carlton and Essendon at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground stadium, home of the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
The event follows broadly the same format as last year. After a ceremonial start on Thursday evening close to yachting's Americas Cup village in Auckland's Viaduct Harbour, the opening two days' are based close to the Paparoa service park in the Northland region, almost 150km north. The second leg ends with two runs at the spectacular floodlit super special stage at Manukau, on the edge of Auckland. The final leg comprises the superb west coast tests near Raglan, 160km south of the city. It includes two passes over the classic Whaanga Coast test, which hugs the Tasman Sea coastline and is rated by many as the best stage in the entire championship. All stages are identical to 2004, with the exception of one new test on each of the opening two legs. There are 20 stages in all and drivers face 356km of competition in a route of 1128.48km.