Three weeks after winning the most recent round of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship in Mexico, the Subaru World Rally Team are preparing to cross the globe for the fourth event of the 16-round series, Rally New Zealand. Commencing on Thursday...
Three weeks after winning the most recent round of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship in Mexico, the Subaru World Rally Team are preparing to cross the globe for the fourth event of the 16-round series, Rally New Zealand. Commencing on Thursday 7 April with a ceremonial start in the host town of Auckland, the three-day event includes some of the best gravel stages in the Championship.
Contested at low altitude amongst luscious green countryside, Rally New Zealand is renowned as a drivers' rally due to it's fast and flowing roller-coaster-like roads that feature heavily cambered corners. The smooth gravel surface places few mechanical pressures on cars and the emphasis is on driver performance, flat-out speed and unwavering levels of commitment.
Rally New Zealand requires nerves of steel and natural car control. The trick is to establish a strong rhythm early on and let the car 'flow' from corner to corner. However, drivers need to ensure they're not caught out by sections of loose gravel or by New Zealand's fickle weather, which in the autumn can change by the hour.
Previously run on stages in both the North and South Islands, Rally New Zealand now follows a more compact route based only in the North. Comprising three legs and 356 competitive kilometres, the event includes 20 stages and a total distance of 1128.48km. Legs one and two will be based in the town of Paparoa, 140km north of Auckland, while Leg three will be based at Western Springs 5km from Auckland's town centre. The event will conclude when the winning car crosses the finish ramp in Auckland at 1530hrs on Sunday 10 April.
The Subaru World Rally Team will be entering two cars in New Zealand, to be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn MacNeall). Stéphane Sarrazin and co-driver Denis Giraudet will complete the recce to gain experience of the event.
Last year Petter won the rally after a thrilling final Leg duel with Marcus Gronholm. Fresh from his second consecutive WRC win of 2005 and his first with the new Subaru Impreza WRC2005, Petter will be seeking another podium finish on this event. His team-mate Chris Atkinson has previously contested the event, but only in a Group N class car. Making his third outing in a WRC car, the Australian will be aiming to gain experience of the gravel event and of his Subaru Impreza WRC2005.
The new car felt good in Mexico, not perfect, but very good. Throughout the event, the team worked hard to improve the set-up so I could get more feeling and, after the second day, I was much happier. There are still some improvements to be made ahead of New Zealand and we're always making lots of adjustments that can make a difference to the overall experience inside the car, so it's looking good. New Zealand will be a difficult rally for me due to running first on the road. I think I'll lose a bit of time on the first day as I sweep the loose gravel roads clean for those behind, but hopefully I'll be able to get it back on Leg two and three. Everything is possible so we'll just have to wait and see. It's a good rally and one that everyone's looking forward to.
I started to understand things a lot more about the car in Mexico and felt as though I was improving. I learned to be more patient and discovered that, it you drop back a little and don't push so hard, it's easier to stay on the clean line. You could see our development in the stage times and hopefully it'll be the same in New Zealand. There were some sections in Mexico that were similar to terrain that I'd contested on before, but many parts felt very new. In terms of the car, everything's feeling better and I'm more comfortable working with the team. All the changes that we made in Mexico seem to have gone in the right direction and the plan is to continue that in New Zealand. Glenn and I have been working pretty closely with Petter. We have quite a similar driving style and want the same things from the car, so it's good. I'm not setting myself any objectives in terms of finishing positions for New Zealand but, similar to the last two events, it's all about getting experience. I'd love to get a good finish and seeing the speed we had in Mexico hopefully that will come soon.
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth:
New Zealand is a fast rally. It's changed a lot over the years and ten years ago was regarded as one of the twistiest, slowest events of the year. However, as it's moved further north, the stages have become faster and more similar to those in Finland. It's always been an event that demands a precise driving style because of the nature of the stages. They have a hard base with lots of loose gravel, so a racing line develops as they clean. To be fast in New Zealand you have to be very accurate and stay on the clean part of the road.
It's a low altitude event, so engine power is at its best and there's a large emphasis on horsepower. In addition, as the event is pretty much as it looks, it's a driver's rally. There aren't too many surprises, so it really is about who can drive the best.
Running first on the road at this event is generally a disadvantage as the stages are covered with loose gravel, sand and dust. The first few cars through are unable to cut through the loose surface to the hard base underneath and they lose grip. However, as they wheel-spin and slide through corners they clean a driving line for those following. The difference between the first and eighth car on the road can be as much as a second per kilometre. The cleaning effect is normally quite pronounced in New Zealand and this year, following an Indian summer, it's likely to be even more so. However, rain can neutralise or even reverse the process. A little rain will bind the loose gravel and dust together and stop the road from cleaning so quickly, while a lot of rain can make the base more slippery for cars further down the field. As the surface is cleaned away, it leaves a slippery top section, which is actually slower. So as Petter's running first on the road, we're hoping for rain on the first day of the rally.
It's difficult to choose the right tyres for this event. If it's dry and you're running 15th on the road, you need a stable tyre with few cuts. However, as there's loose gravel off the driving line, cuts in the tyre will give confidence and make sure you don't lose too much grip if you go wide. If you're first on the road, you need an open tyre to deal with the loose gravel, but there are problems with that. An open tread pattern wears more and if there's 80km to complete on one set of tyres, it's not ideal. It also gives less stability and doesn't respond as sharply to the brakes as a more closed tread pattern would.
Looking to the drivers, from a Championship point of view we know we should be happy to come away from New Zealand with perhaps six points and the lead or something very close to the lead in the Drivers' Championship. On the other hand, we like to go to an event to win, so if we're lucky with the weather and we don't lose too much time on the first day, then no doubt Petter will change his strategy accordingly. Chris completed the event last year in a Group N car, so has some experience in New Zealand. It's limited compared to the top drivers however, so the underlying approach will be learning more about the rally, the tyres and the set-up of a World Rally Car rather than thinking about where he's going to finish."
Between the Rallies
While he recovered from jet lag after his return to Europe from Mexico, Petter had an easy few days catching up on some essentials, including a trip to the dentist, a haircut and a visit to the doctors for his travel inoculations - one of the less glamorous aspects of the jet-set lifestyle. Petter then spent five days skiing with his wife Pernilla, son Oliver and some family friends. He will arrive in Auckland on Friday 1 April, ahead of the New Zealand Rally recce, which starts on Tuesday 5 April.
Chris Atkinson returned home to Australia after Mexico, but broke the trip up with a two-day trip to Las Vegas with some friends. Chris admitted to a 'little flutter' at the casinos, but didn't have much luck and won't be giving up the day job just yet. Since returning to his native Gold Coast, Chris has been enjoying the weather, going for long runs on the beach and swimming in the sea. When the air temperatures of 30°C are just too much to bear, he's been enjoying meals with his friends and eating lots of seafood. He will arrive in Auckland on Sunday 3 April.