The World Rally Championship travels across the Tasman this weekend for Rally New Zealand, with Subaru rally driver Chris Atkinson hoping to be part of his team’s improving performance.

At Rally Australia three weeks ago, his fellow Subaru World Rally Team driver, Petter Solberg, finished second, matching his season’s best performance. The young Queenslander missed out on a top result after paying a very high price for taking his car wide on a corner on the opening day when he was leading the field.

But the pair showed enough to suggest that things are on the improve for SWRT, which has endured a particularly frustrating year. While the team knows much work is still required to make the cars consistently competitive with the likes of Sebastien Loeb and Marcus Gronholm, a glimmer of hope emerged in Western Australia.

Atkinson also hopes some luck finally comes his way in New Zealand.

The 26-year-old has competed twice before in New Zealand, in 2004 in a Group N car and then last year for SWRT when he guided his Subaru Impreza WRC2005 into the points by finishing seventh.

But the 2006 rally is vastly different event to past years, with a change of date (from April to November), route and base.

Only four of the 17 fast, flowing gravel stages are identical to those used on last year’s rally. Of the other tests, Pirongia West and Te Koraha were last used on the 1998 event while the last time Port Waikato was part of the route was back in 1982 when Atkinson was just two years old.

But the Gold Coast driver produced a series of fastest times in New Zealand last year and is looking forward to the event again.

“It’s going to be a tough rally with some long stages,” Atkinson said.

“We’ll be looking to continue the good pace we showed at the beginning of Rally Australia, although I’ll be looking forward to a bit of a change of fortune too.”

“While I’ve done Rally New Zealand twice before we’re going to be using a lot of new roads for this year.

“In terms of a result, we’d hope to be running in the top five and if we can do that, there’s always the chance of being in the hunt for a podium.”

Subaru World Rally Team Sporting Director, Luis Moya, is looking for a top five result as well.

“Like Sardinia earlier this year, this rally is going to be all about having the right tyres on the car at the right time.”

“Building on the performance advantages we found in Turkey and Australia is going to be key as well, and the target is to get both cars into the top five.”

Petter Solberg is also looking for a big weekend, as he turns 32 on Saturday and is hoping to collect his present on the podium on Sunday.

The new base for Rally New Zealand is the Mystery Creek Events Centre near Hamilton, 120km south of Auckland. The venue will play host to the rally headquarters, indoor service park, plus a Super Special which is part of the route on Friday and Saturday night.

The stunning gravel roads in New Zealand are like rollercoasters that carve through the lush green countryside of the North Island. The stages contain several off-camber corners, and the trick is to find the right set-up and get into a rhythm as soon as possible, in order to make the car ‘float’ from corner to corner.

After the ceremonial start on Thursday 16 November, the opening leg of the rally on Friday will take place in the Pirongia-Waitomo region to the west of Hamilton. The drivers will face two passes through the 43km Te Koraha stage, which is smooth, fast and flowing.

One of the highlights of leg two is the return of the dauntingly fast 32km Te Akau South and North stages, while leg three takes the crews onto more familiar roads near Raglan and includes the 29km Whaanga Coast test, which features some of the most spectacular scenery of any rally on the calendar and is a favourite with both drivers and spectators.

The event will cover a total of 358 competitive kilometres and the winning car will cross the finish ramp in Hamilton on Sunday at 15.00hrs (18:00 Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT)).

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