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Mark Tapper, a 28-year-old from Brookby in South Auckland, lines up in the full spotlight of the World Rally Championship (WRC) in Portugal this weekend (3-5 April) where he’s contesting his first rally as one of the first-ever Pirelli Star Drivers.
As the Asia Pacific winner of the first Pirelli Star Driver competition launched last year by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and Pirelli, Tapper will drive a Ralliart Italy-prepared Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X rally car in the production class of six WRC events this year. The production cars run behind the main WRC field.
Rally de Portugal is the first event for Tapper and his four fellow Pirelli Star Drivers, all in identical Group N, or production class Mitsubishis. Portugal was selected as the starting event for the Pirelli Star Drivers due to its mixture of fast and technical sections. Covering 361 kilometres of abrasive gravel roads, the three day event is based north-west of the town of Faro on Portugal’s south coast.
Tapper is joined in Europe for his fully-funded six Pirelli Star Driver events, a package worth in excess of one million dollars, by his Christchurch-based co-driver Jeff Judd. Judd co-drove for Tapper last year as he contested the Pirelli Star Driver qualifying events in Whangarei and Malaysia to win the Asia Pacific title. Judd is a vastly experienced rally driver and co-driver having competed in numerous local and Southern Hemisphere rallies. This makes Portugal a significant event for both Tapper and Judd, so their first goal is to concentrate on finishing.
“I’ve been struggling to wait patiently before getting there and getting underway,” said Tapper when he was home in New Zealand after a week of pre-season fitness training in Scotland, then, with Judd, a few days of testing in the bright yellow Pirelli-branded Mitsubishi in Tuscany, Italy.
“It’s been a pretty long wait, really, since October when we won the position, but the reality will probably set in when we arrive at start of the first special stage,” says the former New Zealand two-wheel-drive champion.
“Everyone’s got bits of ideas on what to do for Portugal, but my game-plan is to not fire it off in the first rally of the year. So I’m going there to pace myself and try doing much the same as I did in Malaysia,” explains Tapper. “I’m not really setting any big goals or anything that’s unrealistic. I just want, hopefully, to get a finish and some points on the board at the first rally, as I’m sure there will be people falling off all over the show.”
Tapper’s brief visit home was packed with commitments before he headed back to Europe late in March.
“I landed back in Auckland and was testing with former British Rally Champion and WRC veteran Alister McRae the very next day. He was really helpful and gave me lots of tips to help me out this season.
“After that, I did a fundraising dinner and auction with more than 200 people – that took some organising, but it was well worthwhile in the end. A few days before leaving, I did a rally-sprint in Reece Jones' left hand drive Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX, finishing a close second.
“I don’t know too much about the Rally de Portugal or about Portugal as a place,” said Tapper who used the 24-hour flight back to Europe to get his knowledge up to speed courtesy of Lonely Planet. “What I do know is that the spectators in Portugal are so passionate about the sport. It seems like a great place and I’m sure it’ll be a really exciting rally. Obviously, coming from the other side of the world can be quite tough from a time zone perspective. In an effort to combat that, I’ve been putting my clock backwards by an hour a day for the last week, which should help. What I want most from the rally is to come away with a straight car and a happy team.”
Tapper’s on-road programme in Portugal involves reconnaissance of the rally’s stages on 31 March and 1 April, and then the car goes through technical scrutineering. On 2 April, Tapper joins the big guns of world rally such as Citroen’s five-time world champion Sebastién Loeb and Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen during the shakedown runs a few kilometres north-east of the rally headquarters at Algarve Stadium, which also hosts the super special stages so loved by rally fans, with two cars competing head-to-head on a specially-constructed track which covers the football pitch. Tapper then has a Pirelli Star Driver press conference before the ceremonial rally start. The rally itself starts on 3 April and takes Tapper and fellow competitors north to the three days of competitive stages.
As well as contesting the six nominated Pirelli Star Driver rallies, Tapper has added September’s Repco Rally Australia to his 2009 international campaign. With financial support from Rally New Zealand Tapper has been able to include the Australian WRC event and therefore earn points in another round of the Production World Rally Championship (P-WRC), which could see him do well in this important feeder series for the full WRC. Tapper’s P-WRC entries see him follow in the footsteps of the late Possum Bourne, the only other New Zealand driver to ever enter for a full P-WRC series, and set himself up for further international competition in 2010.
Tapper and Judd will return to New Zealand between events and contest local rallies, when possible, to increase seat-time.
“I’ll be doing anything I can back home; obviously working on my fitness and all the other parts of my driving you can’t do in the car. But also any cars I can get in and keep driving I will. I’m competing against all these European guys, who have their own cars and I think all of them are doing their own national championship.  I’m not because I don’t have the budget to be able to do so – plus there are also some date clashes.”
After Rally de Portugal from 3 to 5 April, the Pirelli Star Drivers compete in Italy from 22 to 24 May, Greece from 11 to 14 June, Finland from 30 July to 2 August, Spain from 1-4 October and Great Britain from 22 to 25 October. 
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