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Kiwi rally driver Mark Tapper’s hopes for a successful run in the all-tarmac Rally de España round of the World Rally Championship (WRC) were dashed when the engine in his Mitsubishi exploded on a touring stage.
The 28-year-old from Auckland, with his Christchurch based co-driver Jeff Judd, was contesting his fifth event as one of the five inaugural Pirelli Star Drivers. The Spanish event was the pair’s first all-tarmac rally in the Ralliart Italia-prepared car and Tapper had been doing as much preparation as possible – the asphalt surface requires a different driving style to gravel road.
“We were fastest of the Pirelli Star Drivers through the first stage and then close in the next two,” says Tapper who took an early lead in the Group N, or production car, standings. “I was really enjoying driving on asphalt, even though I had only ever done three asphalt rallies in my career and the last time I drove on this surface was 2004. Everything was working well. Jeff is a circuit racer and he kept telling me to use all the road and keep it neat and tidy. It was great.”
But after Friday’s first three stages, Tapper and Judd were en-route to stage four when things went badly wrong.
“The car was fine when we arrived at the service break after stage three,” explains Tapper. “We were touring out to stage four and it started to misfire a little. As I picked up my phone to call the engineer and say we had a problem there was a huge bang and we just rolled to a stop. So I had to explain the engine was destroyed, while walking down the road picking up bits of the block.  What caused it?  I don’t know, and at this stage, neither do they.”
Having been fastest among the Pirelli competitors in the pre-event shakedown as well as his quick pace early in the event, Tapper’s strong performance had been attracting attention.
“After our early pace in shakedown I had high expectations of myself, but in saying so I wasn’t going to push and risk anything going wrong. We set what I thought was a reasonable pace and we had the leading position for the first three splits in the opening stage for Group N cars. At the first service we were third Group N so I was extremely happy. There were certainly lots of people coming in asking how many years I had been go-karting for and what tarmac experience I had, as they were very surprised – like I was.”
Tapper is understandably disappointed, as he’s been unable to finish any rounds of the WRC events specified for the Pirelli Star Drivers due to mechanical failure or breaking something on the car.
“It’s another tough rally for us, really tough. I enjoyed the morning and was looking forward to the afternoon. I knew the places I could make up more time without increasing the risk.”
Instead Tapper used the remainder of his time in Spain to watch his peers:  “I’m not the best spectator in the world; I’ve done as much spectating this year as I have driving.”
Moving on from a week on the Spanish Costa Daurada coast, Tapper and Judd travel to the home of one of their Pirelli Star Driver team-mates in Prague before heading to Britain and the final event of both the 2009 WRC season and the Pirelli events, Wales Rally Great Britain.
“We will probably feel more at home in the UK, compared to some of my team-mates,” Tapper adds, having driven in the gravel event previously in the Ford Fiesta Sporting Challenge.
Wales Rally GB covers 348 kilometres of competitive stages from 23 to 25 October and is based in Cardiff.
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