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New Zealand rally driver Mark Tapper had a short weekend of action on the fast roads of Finland before encountering problems in his fourth round as a Pirelli Star Driver in the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship.
The Brookby-based 28-year-old has been driving a Ralliart Italia-prepared Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X as part of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA)-developed Pirelli Star Driver programme in select rounds of the WRC.
Taking to the fast, flowing, tree-lined roads of Finland, Tapper, with Christchurch-based co-driver Jeff Judd alongside made a great start to the three-day rally, especially considering he had only recently received medical clearance for a broken wrist and shoulder injury.
Tapper ran very closely with fellow Pirelli Star Driver Martin Semerad, an 18-year-old from the Czech Republic for much of the opening day, among the top bracket of drivers in the Production category. So close was Tapper and Semerad’s battle that the pair actually shared the same time to the tenth of a second on the third stage.
Unable to make full use of the hand-brake at intersections given his shoulder injury, Tapper focused on consistent placement of the car over the cresting sections.  “I was happy with our pace on the Friday morning, all things considered. We weren’t taking any risks or were pushing. Note that everyone in front of us, bar Martin Semerad, had scored a P-WRC podium at least, if not won a round before,” he said afterward.
However on a repeat run stage in the afternoon, a change in road surface revealed an obstacle that would halt the Tapper and Judd’s progress.
“There was a rock in the line of the road, in the bedrock, the road base. It had cut out and we copped it with the left-front wheel, broke the ball joint and went off to the outside where we got stuck.
“We rejoined on Saturday morning; it was really wet and slippery and we just took it carefully – like it was a high-speed reconnaissance basically. There was nothing to be gained by attacking so I wanted to stick to my goal of seeing every stage. In the second pass of the second stage, we went in to a hole, where I think Loeb got his puncture. It was in a junction and I couldn’t see it until it was too late, I couldn’t avoid it. It felt like it pushed the wheel back, but a while later down the road, the oil light came on so I turned the car off. It had dropped the sump-guard off, which pushed the oil cooler back and rubbed on the wheel, resulting in no oil pressure and an engine too damaged to continue.”
Surprised by the change in road condition, Tapper added the incident to his experience base.
“The roads were so smooth in reconnaissance I should have probably paid more attention to the base of them. Some of them are quite sandy, not unlike roads in the Rotorua forest. There were sections in the second pass that were as rough as Sardinia – if not rougher. So that was a surprise when the roads were so smooth and fast in the first pass.”
Tapper’s team elected not to replace the engine and turbo for the final day, meaning Tapper retired from the event.
With a month until the pair contest Repco Rally Australia as part of Tapper’s personal campaign to secure further international competition experience in 2010, Tapper has an intensive rehabilitation programme to improve strength and range of movement in his shoulder. He’ll be in a right-hand-drive car for the Australasian round of the World Rally Championship and using his right arm more to control the car.
“I’m under no illusion how much more difficult it will be to drive a right-hand-drive car over the left-hand-drive Lancer EVO X. My right arm spent a lot of time sitting in my lap if I wasn’t changing gear this weekend.
“The doctor said my shoulder should be out of action for six months but whether I can cope steering with a right-hand-drive car I’ve yet to see. At this stage I’ve entered the Possum Bourne Memorial Rally, which runs on 22 August two weeks before Repco Rally Australia, to see how we go.”
Following the early September trip to Australia, Tapper and Judd will return to the northern hemisphere to contest the final two Pirelli Star Driver events: all-tarmac Movistar RACC Rallye de España from 1 to 4 October – the only sealed surface rally on the Pirelli Star Driver calendar for this season – and Great Britain from 22 to 25 October.
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