The world's top rally stars move to some of their favourite roads of the season for this weekend's Rally New Zealand, the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Auckland-based event is the first of two Antipodean outings for the...
The world's top rally stars move to some of their favourite roads of the season for this weekend's Rally New Zealand, the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Auckland-based event is the first of two Antipodean outings for the series but Marcus Grönholm and Peugeot will both be hoping that the respective battles for drivers' and manufacturers' crowns don't make it to Rally Australia at the end of this month. Grönholm can secure his second drivers' title by finishing ahead of both reigning champion Richard Burns and Ford's Colin McRae, while Peugeot requires just three points to guarantee a third successive victory in the makes series.
The championship leaders could suffer on the opening stages tomorrow morning, however. If conditions are dry, then the smooth New Zealand roads will be coated by loose gravel and the first few cars on the road could pay a heavy penalty for sweeping the stones clear for their rivals. The eventual victor on Sunday afternoon could be the frontrunner who limits the time loss most effectively.
Peugeot (1st - 131 points)
Technical: Peugeot has made no major technical changes to the 206 WRCs for this event, although the team was debating this morning at shakedown on whether it will use the hydraulically-controlled rear anti-roll bars on the car. A decision was not expected to be made until this afternoon.
Sporting: Peugeot has entered four 206 WRCs on this event. Marcus Grönholm, Richard Burns and Harri Rovanperä will each be registered for manufacturers' points, while the fourth car - driven by Rallye Sanremo winner Gilles Panizzi - will be eligible for drivers' points only.
Marcus Grönholm said: "The road position on the first day will be bad for me, but maybe if it rains then the later guys won't have such a big advantage. All we can do is try to stay smooth, not have so much wheelspin and get as high a position as possible at the end of the first day. Then if we're somewhere in touch with the leaders, we can still fight. Of course I'm thinking about the championship but with the situation on the first day, it means that I can't take things easy and aim for points. I'll have to push quite hard."
Richard Burns said: "I think the first day is going to be tough, of course. If we all get clean runs then I think we'll do well to be any higher than the bottom quarter of the top 10 - eighth or ninth, perhaps. That'll make things difficult for the second and third days. But I'm still quite optimistic, purely because of how the car feels on the roads here. If you try to drive in a really aggressive manner then the times aren't there but if you brake even five metres earlier and power through the corner, it feels fantastic."
Ford (2nd - 86 points)
Technical: Ford's Focus RS WRC02s will run in essentially the same specification here as they did in Finland, although all three cars will use the slightly revised engine specification that featured on Markko Martin's car in Sanremo last month.
Sporting: Ford sends its three usual drivers - Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin - to New Zealand, and all three will be registered for manufacturers' points. The team recently announced that it will not be renewing McRae's contract for 2003, and the Scot has been confirmed as a Citroen driver for next season. Martin is contesting Rally New Zealand for the first time, although he has completed the pre-rally reconnaissance before. He should be able to draw on the experience of team-mate Sainz, who is the most successful driver in the event's history with four wins.
Carlos Sainz said: "The roads here are the best drivers' stages in the world. They're smooth and there aren't any rocks by the side of the road, so we don't have to worry about punctures so much. The only real difficulty could occur if it stays dry, because the loose gravel on the road will give the first few crews a definite disadvantage."
Colin McRae said: "I'm glad to be moving back onto gravel after a couple of rounds on asphalt, but I'm sure this is going to be a tricky one again anyway. For sure the Peugeots looked strong in Finland - the last gravel round - and if they can continue that pace then it'll be a tough battle. We'll be third on the road tomorrow morning which could put us at a disadvantage if it's dry, but we'll just have to try to cope as best as possible if that happens."
Subaru (3rd - 46 points)
Technical: Subaru has made a few changes to the gravel specification of the Impreza WRC2002 since Rally Finland. The team discovered tweaks to dampers, shock absorbers and differential settings during a pre-event development test, and it has adopted several of these modifications for New Zealand.
Sporting: Subaru has entered two Impreza WRC2002s for this event, to be driven by four-times world champion Tommi Mäkinen and young Norwegian Petter Solberg. Last week, the team unveiled a concept of its 2003 challenger at the Paris Motor Show. It is expecting the car to make its debut at the start of next season in Monte Carlo.
Petter Solberg said: "I've got a pretty good feeling after the test here. I think the important day will be tomorrow, even though the roads for the first day haven't got quite so much loose gravel than the second day. Getting a good road position for Saturday is going to be the real key here, so everyone will have to be pushing at the maximum from the first corner. That's if it stays dry, of course - if it rains, then road position won't be such a big issue. It's going to be quite an open rally, I think."
Tommi Mäkinen said: "I'm really looking forward to this event. We did a really good pre-event test and we've found some more improvements in the car. We showed in Sanremo that we've found a good direction with the Impreza development and we're pushing that forward again, so I'm confident that we can be competitive here."
Mitsubishi (4th - 9 points)
Technical: Mitsubishi has made no major changes to the Lancer for this event, although the car will use some of the revisions in transmission and engine settings that featured on the recent asphalt events.
Sporting: Mitsubishi Ralliart was forced to change its driver line-up for this rally, after Alister McRae was ruled out because of the same mountain bike accident injuries that caused him to withdraw from the Rallye Sanremo last month. The Scot has been replaced by occasional Mitsubishi driver Jani Paasonen, meaning that the Finn will now contest all of the last three rounds of this year's world championship. McRae is expected to return for Rally Australia, depending on the speed of his recovery from a bruised liver. Paasonen will team up with Mitsubishi's other regular driver, François Delecour, for this event.
François Delecour said: "The stages here are some of the best in the world - very nice, flowing roads. I don't know what we can achieve here, though - if it rains, then there's not such a big disadvantage being first on the road and it'll be harder to gain time on Friday. And even if it's dry that won't be easy - we've found this year that our car seems to use different lines than the others, so we won't get such a big advantage from the front cars cleaning the roads anyway."
Jani Paasonen said: "I got a phone call about 10 days ago from the team saying that Alister was injured and asking me if I could drive in New Zealand. Of course I said yes! For me, every kilometre in the car is good news because it allows me to get more experience. I don't know what result will be possible - we'll have to see what conditions are like and how that's affecting the early crews with loose gravel on the road."
Skoda (5th - 8 points)
Technical: Skoda has made no major technical changes to the Octavia WRC for this event, and the Czech team's two cars will both run in essentially the same trim as Rally Finland. Toni Gardemeister's car is a rebuild of the Octavia that he crashed in Germany, while Kenneth Eriksson gets the only brand new car amongst all of the works entries.
Sporting: Skoda has entered two Octavia WRCs for this event, for regular drivers Toni Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson.
Toni Gardemeister said: "I think this could be a difficult event for us. The car feels basically fine but it still seems to be going too sideways. We've been looking at fine-tuning the differentials this morning but I also think it's a bit of suspension and weight distribution as well, so we'll just have to cope with it. Of course there's always the chance of a clean run and others hitting some problems, so we'll certainly be trying. But I think that the smooth roads here will mean there won't be many retirements, so it's going to be tough to get near the points,"
Hyundai (6th - 6 points)
Technical: Hyundai is running a number of features for the first time on gravel in New Zealand. The Accent WRC3s will use computer-controlled 'active' differentials for the first time on loose surfaces, and they will also feature the revised engine that first appeared in Sanremo last month.
Sporting: Hyundai sends three Accent WRC3s to New Zealand - for regular drivers Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix, and four-times world champion Juha Kankkunen. The team conducted a four-day test prior to this event, with one entire day devoted to fine-tuning the Accent's computer-controlled 'active' rear differential on loose surfaces. Schwarz, meanwhile, says that he has fully recovered from the injuries he sustained in his Rallye Deutschland accident.
Armin Schwarz said: "I'm feeling much, much better than I was in Sanremo. I've been working with my physiotherapist and he's done some fabulous work - without him, I'm sure I wouldn't even have been fit for this event. Obviously we had a poor event in Sanremo, especially after all of the efforts we'd made, but I'm quite hopeful for here. I had to make new pacenotes because the last time I did this rally was in 1995, but it's a good event and the stages are excellent."
Juha Kankkunen said: "I think I've done this rally about 12 times now. It's got really good roads, real drivers' stages that are fast and flowing, and easy on the car as well. It's difficult to say what we can achieve here - if the car is reliable then we have a chance of fighting to be in the middle of the top 10, and then there's a chance of points."
Rally New Zealand is the seventh round of the FIA World Production Car Championship, and all of the leading protagonists are present. Karamjit Singh and Ramon Ferreyros top the standings at present and they are both likely to be among the frontrunners on the smooth gravel stages. They could face an increased challenge, however, from Finn Kristian Sohlberg, Italian Alex Fiorio and Japanese driver Toshihiro Arai.
Outside of the Group N ranks, local hopes in the overall standings are likely to be shouldered by Subaru driver Bruce Herbert and Mitsubishi pilot Geof Argyle.