Subaru rally driver Chris Atkinson is determined to push for a top five result when he competes in his ‘home’ round of the World Rally Championship this weekend.
With Rally Australia not back on the WRC calendar until 2009, the Australian enters Repco Rally New Zealand hoping to reclaim third place in the championship, after slipping to fourth after his sixth placing in Rally Deutschland two weeks ago.
Sebastien Loeb, who won the German round, is first in the series with 76 points. Mikko Hirvonen is second with 72 points, Daniel Sordo is third on 43, while Atkinson is next on 40, having scored points in seven of the ten rounds this season.
With its smooth, flowing and cambered roads, Rally New Zealand is one of Atkinson’s favourite efvents, and one that he has set a number of fastest stage times at in past years.
This will be the fifth event for the new Subaru Impreza WRC2008, the fourth on dirt, and Atkinson is hopeful of moving closer to the leading drivers on roads described by most as the best in the championship.
“I’m really looking forward to New Zealand, but we need to find a little more speed if we’re going to compete with the likes of Seb (Loeb), Mikko (Hirvonen) and Jari-Matti (Latvala),” Atkinson said.
“We have some good ideas from our last start on dirt in Finland, so if everything works out, I think we could be strong here.
“As with last year, it’s the closest to my home rally this season, so I’m looking forward to getting there, meeting all the guys who are coming over from home, and closing the gap to those in front,” he added.
Along with being another important step in the development of the Impreza WRC2008, Rally New Zealand also marks the 200th WRC start for the iconic model. It is also the 15th anniversary of Subaru’s first win in the WRC, in New Zealand in 1993.
“I’ve got some great memories of Rally New Zealand,” Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Richards, said.
“It’s an event that is historically very significant for the team, producing our first ever WRC win. More recently, we’ve had a busy few weeks of testing and rallies, and as a result our drivers are feeling increasingly more confident with the new car.”
Operations Manager Paul Howarth agrees.
“The cambered roads we see in New Zealand are pretty unique to this rally, and getting them right is crucial to setting good times. The drivers must get their car to flow from corner to corner using the camber to their advantage, and they must build a good rhythm from the start, otherwise the time will just fall away.
“It’s also important to have maximum confidence and commitment to slingshot the car along the fast roads.”
The Gold Coast driver finished fourth in Rally New Zealand last year, and has always been competitive in the three years he has contested the event for the factory Subaru team.
Repco Rally New Zealand is based in the north island city of Hamilton, 130km south of Auckland. Recent weather in the region has caused problems for the organisers, with the longest stage of the rally – the 43.98km Waitomo stage – having to be cut in half, due to an impassable section of road mid-way through the stage.
The rally is based at the Mystery Creek Events Centre, were an indoor service park is popular with spectators. The complex also hosts a super special stage, which is held three times during the event, including the last stage of the rally on Sunday afternoon.
After a ceremonial start in Hamilton on Thursday evening, competitors face 16 stages covering a 354.58 kilometres.
Last year’s Rally New Zealand saw the closest finish in the history of the WRC, with the first and second placed crews separated by only 0.3 seconds after three days of flat-out competition.
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