Citroen arrives in Auckland with an eight-point lead in the manufacturer's title race, having won two of the first three rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship. Richard Burns is leading the race for the driver's title, the Peugeot pilot holds...
Citroen arrives in Auckland with an eight-point lead in the manufacturer's title race, having won two of the first three rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship. Richard Burns is leading the race for the driver's title, the Peugeot pilot holds a one-point advantage from his fellow British driver Colin McRae. Neither Burns or Colin McRae has won a round this season, but third-placed driver Carlos Sainz topped the podium on the last round, the Rally of Turkey.
The weather plays a vital role in this week's Propecia Rally New Zealand, which is running in an Autumn rather than Spring date for the first time this season. If it remains dry then running first on the road - and sweeping the layer of stones off the surface - will be a disadvantage. If it rains, however, the surface will bind together and reduce the disadvantage to those at the head of the field.
Three teams have homologated new parts for this event, the biggest changes coming at Ford where a radically new Focus RS WRC 03 will be used for the first time on the North Island roads. Citroen and Hyundai are the other teams who have made smaller changes to the Xsara WRC and Accent WRC respectively.
This event is also a round of the FIA Production Car Championship and former world champion Stig Blomqvist starts this second round at the top of the table after his win on round one in a Subaru Impreza. Reigning champion Karamjit Singh is second in his Proton Pert.
Citroen Total (1st - 39 points)
Technical: This is the first event for the new evolution of Xsara WRC. There have been changes to the turbo, intercooler and the exhaust manifold, but the only visible change is the introduction of a sectioned rear wing to improve downforce in high-speed corners.
Sporting: Citroen's full-time entrance into the FIA World Rally Championship has been one of the stories of the season so far. The Xsara WRCs have won two out of the three rallies (Sebastien Loeb won Monte Carlo and Carlos Sainz won Rally of Turkey). Consistent finishes over the first three rallies have placed Colin McRae ahead of his team-mates, however. Both McRae and Sainz know this event particularly well and have won it three and four times respectively in the past. By contrast Loeb has never competed here, although he has completed the recce for the last two seasons.
Colin McRae said: "A lot depends on the weather for us. On the recce the stages south of Auckland were looking good, there had been quite a lot of rain and they were expecting more, but the ones to the north are a harder surface and they need more rain to bind the stones together. We'll have to wait and see."
Sebastien Loeb said: "It's hard to know what I can do here, obviously it's a disadvantage not having competed on this rally before. I'm going to be looking at the set-up that Colin and Carlos take, because we're not allowed to test on rallies outside of Europe."
Carlos Sainz said: "For drivers, this is one of the best rallies of the year. You can concentrate totally on your driving without worrying about the car. It's hard to say whether we can repeat the win in Turkey as this rally is the complete opposite of what the last round was like."
Marlboro Peugeot Total (2nd - 31 points)
Technical: The Peugeots arrive here in the same specification that they tackled Rally of Turkey.
Sporting: Richard Burns starts this event as championship leader following his second place on the last round in Turkey. Burns arrived in New Zealand early, taking a holiday in Queenstown before heading north to Auckland for the recce. Burns is a previous winner of this rally, taking the spoils in 2001 on his way to winning the world championship. Marcus Gronholm won Rally New Zealand last year. This season hasn't started particularly well for the Finn. He won the Swedish Rally in February, but went off the road while leading Monte Carlo and then suffered time-consuming power steering trouble in Turkey. Harri Rovanpera capitalised on Gronholm's trouble on the last round, but then suffered suspension problems of his own - eventually retiring from round three.
Marcus Gronholm said: "This dry weather is going to be a bit harder on the tyres than last year. I want to try and win this rally and I think it is possible to win. The car feels very good and I haven't made any changes to the car during the shakedown."
Richard Burns said: "I'm quite relaxed about this rally, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be complacent. I know what to expect from this event, which makes things a little bit easier. Tomorrow is my favourite day in the whole year, but it's not going to be quite so good running at the front of the field with all that gravel on the road."
Harri Rovanpera said: "I'm going to be going flat out from the start of this rally. Two years ago I was third, last year I was second and so maybe this year I can win."
Ford Motor Company (3rd - 25 points)
Technical: Markko Martin and Francois Duval have a new Ford Focus RS WRC03 apiece while Mikko Hirvonen remains in the 2002 car. The main changes to the 2003 car are in the aerodynamics, the rear suspension and in the weight. The aerodynamics are radically different, with the car now sporting a much larger rear wing and hot air exit vents in the bonnet. The suspension changes are being kept largely under wraps, but the car's designer Christian Loriaux promises it's nothing revolutionary. The weight saving has been significant, but of equal importance has been the re-distribution of that weight, with almost everything in the car being set as low as possible, including the driver and co-driver.
Sporting: Martin is the only one of the three Ford drivers to have tackled this event before and the 27-year-old Estonian was a debutant here last year. Martin crashed out of the event last year, but has made a good start to this season, finishing in the top six on all three of the rallies run so far. Duval arrives in New Zealand on a high having posted his first podium placing on the last round in Turkey. The Belgian's fellow, 22-year-old team-mate Hirvonen has yet to register his first point, retiring from Monte Carlo and Turkey and finishing just outside the top ten in Sweden.
Markko Martin said: "I can't wait to get going in this rally. I'm really looking forward to the stages which we re-use, that gives us more of a level playing field to compete against the others on - rather than sweeping the road at the front of the field."
François Duval said: "We had a small problem with the car at shakedown, it was cutting out on two of our runs. There was a problem with one of the sensors on the car, but it's fixed and the car's fine now."
Malcolm Wilson said: "This new car is very exciting for everybody at Ford. In the back-to-back tests we've done against the 2002 car it's quicker already, so we know we've got the performance right, all we have to do is make sure that we can maintain the finishing record that has brought us into the points on the last 17 rounds of the championship."
555 Subaru World Rally Team (4th - 13 points)
Technical: This year's Subaru Impreza WRC 2003 was designed with high-speed events such as the Rally New Zealand in mind. The team has made slight changes to the electronics to maximise the performance of the engine, but there are no hardware changes anywhere on the car.
Sporting: Both Tommi Makinen and Petter Solberg endured difficult times in Turkey. Makinen made it home in eighth place despite suspension and power steering damage, while Solberg retired on the first day with suspension trouble. The new car has shown pace this season, however, with Makinen challenging for victory in Sweden.
Petter Solberg said: "The testing I did before this rally went well, but it's difficult to recreate the exact conditions which we are going to find here. I know the stages quite well and have a good position on the road for the first leg, we'll see."
Tommi Makinen said: "Running the rally at this time of the year makes it a little bit difficult to predict what the conditions are going to be like, but this is an event where we should be looking to get a good result."
Skoda Motorsport (5th - 6 points)
Technical: Since the official announcement of its new Fabia WRC (which is scheduled to appear towards the end of the season), there has been very little development work done on the Octavia WRC. The car is in the same specification that it ran on the first three rallies of 2003.
Sporting: Both Didier Auriol and Toni Gardemeister have posted good results on this rally in the past. Auriol finished second on the rally in 1998, while Gardemeister's third place the following year remains his best finish in the FIA World Rally Championship. Gardemeister arrives in Auckland on the back of two points-scoring finishes, while Auriol has yet to register his first point of the season.
Didier Auriol said: "We had a problem with the transmission this morning, so the team changed the gearbox and the car has been okay since then. We've made a lot of changes to the car at shakedown, on suspension set-up and things like that, but I'm not sure what we can achieve in the rally.
Toni Gardemeister said: "When we arrived at shakedown the car felt terrible; it was too low and we had to change the suspension, but it got better and better and now it's quite good in time for the rally. It's a shame that we haven't tested the car since before the rally in Turkey.
Hyundai World Rally Team (6th - 3 points)
Technical: Hyundai has homologated a new turbo housing and for the first time the Accent WRC will be fitted with shock absorbers made in-house.
Sporting: Hyundai will be running three Accents again on this event, with Jussi Valimaki joining Freddy Loix and Armin Schwarz. The latter two drivers have been unable to test the car before the first three rounds of the season, but both are upbeat about their chances here following the changes made to the car and a test session in Spain. Schwarz and Loix drive the same cars that they used on this event last season.
Armin Schwarz said: "The car feels better since the changes we've made, but it's quite strange because it is so much more driveable, it feels less dramatic and you feel sure that you're going slower until you look at the times."
Freddy Loix said: "I'm happy with the testing we've done before this event, there's better torque and response from the engine. The shock absorbers are a good step forward, we've got better traction with the car now. I have a good feeling with the car and I'm confident we can score points. "
Mitsubishi driver Alister McRae makes his first appearance of the season in a factory specification Lancer WRC, although his is not a manufacturer entry. Finland's Kristian Sohlberg drives a sister car to that of McRae's.
This event is the second round of the FIA Production Car Championship and round one winner Stig Blomqvist leads the crews away in a Subaru Impreza. Toshi Arai and 'Possum' Bourne drive the latest evolution of Impreza homologated on April 1.
EVENT: Propecia Rally New Zealand is the 4th of 14 events in the FIA World Rally Championship.
ENTRIES: 80 (40 Group A, 40 Group N)
DRIVERS: Argentina 1, Austria 1, Australia 3, Belgium 2, Bulgaria 1, Canada 1, Estonia 1, Finland 7, France 2, Germany 2, Great Britain 7, Italy 3, Japan 6, Malaysia 1, Mexico 1, Monte Carlo 1, Oman 1, Peru 1, New Zealand 27, Norway 1, Poland 4, Romania 1, Spain 2, Sweden 2, United States 1.
MANUFACTURER TEAMS: Citroen, Ford, Hyundai, Peugeot, Skoda, Subaru
CARS: (including the manufacturer cars): Citroen 3, Daihatsu 1, Ford 5, Hyundai 3, Mitsubishi 41, Peugeot 5, Proton 1, Skoda 2, Subaru 19