The FIA World Rally Championship season moves into its second half as teams make the long journey to the other side of the world for the Rally New Zealand (13-16 July). Based in Auckland, recent home of the America's Cup yacht race and known as...
The FIA World Rally Championship season moves into its second half as teams make the long journey to the other side of the world for the Rally New Zealand (13-16 July). Based in Auckland, recent home of the America's Cup yacht race and known as the City of Sails, the rally offers the Ford Martini team the chance to capitalise on the momentum gained from two wins in the last three rallies.
The omens for New Zealand are good. Victory for Colin McRae and Nicky Grist behind the wheel of their Ford Focus World Rally Car in Spain's Catalunya Rally and last month's Acropolis Rally have moved the Britons into second in the drivers' championship. Team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were third and second on the same rallies to cement Ford in second in the manufacturers' table.
McRae and Sainz have won the Rally New Zealand seven times during the past 10 years and both profess a liking for the fast, flowing and smooth gravel roads which most drivers regard as the best in the world championship.
The Scot acknowledges how important the rally is for his title hopes and those of the Ford Martini team. "It's a big rally for me in several ways. It's the first world championship event I won (in 1993) and could prove vital in this year's championship. Richard Burns still has a fairly comfortable lead but if we can score a similar result in New Zealand to that of Greece it will show the tide is really turning. The reliability and consistency of the Focus has improved and that bodes well for the second half of the season.
"The weather's not usually very good out there but the stages make up for it. You can really attack them at 100 per cent. They're so good it puts an added emphasis on the performance of the driver to squeeze out the extra few seconds that make the difference between winning and coming second," he added.
Sainz and Moya were winners in 1990, '91, '92 and '98 and the 38-year-old Madrid-based driver would like nothing more than to add a fifth success to his tally. "It's a rally I enjoy greatly and an event which should suit the Focus," said Sainz. "It's a pure driving event and the roads are fantastic. They're very quick and flowing and the camber encourages you to drive quickly. There's few bumps and no rocks so you can concentrate on your lines and car control.
"From the position of fighting for the championship, the second half of the season should be better for us than the first. And if Ford is battling for the manufacturers' title then it follows that either Colin or myself will be fighting for the driver's crown," added Sainz.
Petter Solberg and Phil Mills will drive a third Ford-entered Focus, the junior members of the Ford squad competing in New Zealand for the first time.
"We completed the recce last year and it was clear that it's quite a fast rally and that makes it difficult to ensure the pace notes are perfect," said the 25-year-old Norwegian driver. "The last rally in Greece was much slower, and consequently easier. Setting so many fastest stage times on the Acropolis was a real confidence boost but we must accept it's unlikely we'll do the same in New Zealand. It's a rally where we must look and learn."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson admitted confidence in the team was high after recent results. "The 1-2 in Greece gave everyone a boost and we have two drivers who know the New Zealand roads well. Seven victories between them is impressive and Colin was also leading the rally last year before his retirement so we're pretty upbeat," he said.
Both Focus World Rally Cars will have revised camshafts in their engines following a four-day test in Finland at the end of last month. "It should improve throttle response at the lower end of the range without losing anything at the top end," explained Wilson. "It's important for the cars to have a very neutral balance. Many of the corners are very long and a neutral set-up ensures the car can react quickly to a change of direction."
The priority for Ford Martini's tyre partner, Michelin, is ensuring the best grip in conditions generally made slippery by the southern hemisphere winter. The smooth roads reduce tyre wear to a minimum, even in the dry, yet the rally requires a precise driving style to limit wheelspin and the inevitable drifting through corners that the roads encourage.
Tyre selection is simpler than most rounds, the almost inevitable rain keeping the roads wet. Even when it stops the stages stay damp well after the sun emerges. "Selection is not as critical as on other rallies," said McRae. "The stages are consistent and you can select a tyre pattern in the morning and find you stay with the same pattern for the rest of the day."
However, the weather often plays a big role. "When it's dry, start order into stages can be critical because of the small stones on the road that the first cars have to brush clear," said Sainz. "In the wet the nature of the stages changes because of the slippery film of mud on the surface which the tyres must slice through in order to bite into the compact ground underneath. The importance of re-cutting the patterns can become critical here."
The second leg of this year's event contains the longest special stage in world rallying since rallies were drastically shortened in 1986. At 59km, it is a combination of two existing tests called Parahi and Ararua, joined together by a 2km stretch of asphalt. Although the event is still run over four days, the opening evening is purely a ceremonial start in Auckland, the traditional opening super special at Manukau having been moved to the end of the following day when drivers will tackle the test twice. The opening leg takes competitors south of Auckland for stages around Raglan, famous for the black sand on its beaches. It heads north in leg two for the longest day, drivers facing more than 176km of stages around Maungaturoto. The final day is the shortest, based primarily in Maramarua Forest, south-east of Auckland. Drivers tackle 24 stages in all, covering 373.37km in a route of 1619km.
RALLY NEW ZEALAND
ROUND 8 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
13 - 16 JULY 2000
Thursday 13 July: Leg 1 (section 1) Auckland - Auckland Start Auckland 19.00 Finish Auckland 19.25
Friday 14 July: Leg 1 (section 2) Auckland - Auckland Start Auckland 05.00 SS1 Te Akau North 32.37km 08.18 SS2 Maungatawhiri 6.52km 10.26 SS3 Te Papatapu 1 16.75km 10.49 SS4 Te Hutewai 11.32km 11.22 SS5 Whaanga Coast 29.52km 12.53 SS6 Te Papatapu 2 16.75km 13.36 SS7 Manukau Super 1 2.10km 18.15 SS8 Manukau Super 2 2.10km 18.45 Finish Auckland 19.30 Total 117.43km
Saturday 15 July: Leg 2 Auckland - Auckland Start Auckland 07.00 SS9 Waipu Gorge 1 11.24km 09.28 SS10 Brooks 1 16.03km 09.46 SS11 Paparoa Station 1 11.64km 10.14 SS12 Parahi / Ararua 59.00km 11.37 SS13 Cassidy 20.12km 14.20 SS14 Batley 19.82km 15.13 SS15 Waipu Gorge 2 11.24km 16.16 SS16 Brooks 2 16.03km 16.34 SS17 Paparoa Station 2 11.64km 17.02 Finish Auckland 21.00 Total 176.76km
Sunday 16 July: Leg 3 Auckland - Manukau Start Auckland 07.00 SS18 Te Akau South 31.24km 09.18 SS19 Ridge 1 8.53km 11.26 SS20 Campbell 1 7.44km 11.39 SS21 Ridge 2 8.53km 11.57 SS22 Campbell 2 7.44km 12.10 SS23 Fyfe 1 8.00km 12.53 SS24 Fyfe 2 8.00km 13.06 Finish Manukau 15.30 Total 79.18km
Rally Totals 373.37km