Ford fleet sets sail to sink rivals in New Zealand. The best roads in the FIA World Rally Championship calendar lie in wait for Ford Rallye Sport's drivers as the series moves to New Zealand early next month for the first of two events in the ...
Ford fleet sets sail to sink rivals in New Zealand.
The best roads in the FIA World Rally Championship calendar lie in wait for Ford Rallye Sport's drivers as the series moves to New Zealand early next month for the first of two events in the region. Rally New Zealand's (3 - 6 October) host city of Auckland will be awash with world class sport as the 12th round of the championship clashes head on with the start of the qualifying races for yachting's America's Cup.
Ford's drivers hope it will be plain sailing for them and their Focus RS World Rally Cars during an event voted the best in the championship in 2001. The smooth, flowing, gravel speed tests ease their way through lush green countryside, posing few mechanical demands on cars and encouraging competitors to attack them. The drivers rate the special stages as the finest of the season and it is said the best performers will always shine on such perfect roads.
As such Ford Rallye Sport would appear to have the strongest line-up, boasting seven victories in the past 12 years. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya have four wins to their credit, in 1990, '91, '92 and '98 while Colin McRae scored his maiden world rally success in 1993 and went on to win in the following two seasons as well. In contrast, Markko Märtin and Michael Park will start the event for the first time.
"The roads in New Zealand are the best in the world from a driver's view," said 40-year-old Sainz. "They're flat and smooth and we don't have to worry about rocks damaging the cars. It's usually down to pure speed because we can drive flat out from the start. The Focus RS is a good car on gravel so I'm confident of a strong result.
"The only difficulty will arise if the weather is dry. In those conditions there's quite a lot of loose gravel on the road surface and those drivers at the head of the starting order will have a disadvantage," added Sainz.
McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist are also big fans of the rally. "Not surprisingly, I've got pretty good memories of New Zealand," said McRae. "It's one of my favourite rallies. We drive on nice, smooth roads and it's an event where flat out consistency usually wins. There's no real unpredictability to the stages and the cars have an easy time there.
"After the last two rallies on asphalt, I'm happy we're moving back to gravel. I enjoy all the last three rounds and although winning a world rally now is harder than it ever was due to the increased competition, I think we start with a good chance of victory in all three," added the 34-year-old Scot.
Märtin has driven the Rally New Zealand stages twice, but only during the reconnaissance period to make pace notes. "From what I've seen, I really like the roads and now I want to drive them competitively. I think the stages are slower than those in Finland but otherwise very similar in character, apart from the big jumps."
Märtin has scored points in the drivers' championship on each of the last six rounds and remains the only driver in the championship with a 100% finishing record. That is a run he would love to extend in New Zealand. "It won't be easy to score points on my first visit there but I would like to keep this sequence going," added the 26-year-old Estonian.
In The Spotlight
All three Focus RS World Rally Cars will be powered by an improved Cosworth Racing-built engine. Märtin used the upgraded engine for the first time in competition on the Rallye Sanremo earlier this month but it will also be used in the Focus RS cars driven by Sainz and McRae in New Zealand. Ford Rallye Sport's technical director Christian Loriaux said the engine featured revised settings to the ignition and fuel mapping systems which produced a power improvement of one per cent on Märtin's car.
Loriaux said that all three Focus RS cars would also feature revised dampers. "We used some evolution dampers on the Rally Finland in August which worked well. Now we have a further evolution developed which we'll use for the first time. During the team's three-day test before the rally, engineers will also work on differential mapping to optimise traction.
"We have the credentials to win in New Zealand. The rally's not so specialised as Finland but similar in other ways and the roads out there seem to suit the Focus," added Loriaux.
The rally is virtually identical to 2001 - 20 of the 26 special stages are the same. After a ceremonial start in Auckland on Thursday evening, the event begins for real the next morning with the first leg based around Raglan, 150km to the south. It ends with two super special stages at Manukau City, on the fringe of Auckland. The second day heads north and drivers face 17 hours behind a wheel and more than 206km of competition on roads around Ruawai. The toughest test will be the massive 59km Parahai / Ararua, the longest test in the championship outside of Kenya's unique Safari Rally. The final day contains two tests north of Raglan before a final rush of six stages, without service in Maramarua Forest, south-east of Auckland. The rally finishes in Manukau after 414.04km of competition in a route of 1793.23km.