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Kiwi rally driver Mark Tapper returns to the FIA World Rally Championship this weekend for his second event in the Pirelli Star Driver programme competing in the Rally d’Italia Sardegna, 22 to 24 May.
 
Tapper, age 28 from South Auckland, along with four other drivers from around the world, won a place in the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA)-backed driver development programme to contest six of this year’s WRC rounds.
 
Tapper will again be driving a Ralliart Italia team-prepared Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X accompanied by Christchurch based co-driver Jeff Judd. Their support contingent includes Tapper’s parents Jerome and Jude for the Kiwi pair’s first-ever event on Italian soil.
 
Covering 347 kilometres of punishing sand-covered rocky road on the Italian island of Sardinia, Tapper says his plan is very similar to the one with which he started his world campaign in Portugal last month.
 
“Jeff and I have talked about it and our number one goal is to finish both Sardinia and the third round, Greece. They are rougher events, making them more difficult to finish than our first event in Portugal and we have realised if we do what we did on our first day there, if I can keep the car together, then we know we will have a result,” said Tapper before flying out to Europe.
 
“We’re not going over there to try and win the Production WRC class, but we’re pretty confident that if we keep on doing what we’ve been doing, we will be competitive.”
 
Finishing second out of the five Pirelli Star Driver drivers in Portugal, Tapper also finished fifth in the P-WRC field. Currently balancing mental preparation with ever increasing physical fitness, Tapper says planning is equally important to success.
 
“I guess one of the things I’ve been thinking about, something that’s probably taken ten or so years to learn, that’s making a plan and sticking to it, no matter what happens. Especially when things go wrong, not to get rattled, just to keep on with what you’re doing. We came away from Portugal with what I thought was a pretty decent result considering we lost 25 minutes through having to ‘SuperRally’ [retire and rejoin with a time penalty] on the Saturday when the steering failed.
 
“To come away fifth proves that a WRC rally is three long days and that when you think you’re down and out you may not be – you’ve just got to keep on going.
 
“What it’s proved to me, by watching the top guys in P-WRC, is that you cannot drive a Group N car flat-out for three days – you’ll either come off or break something.
 
“Armindo Araujo, our team-mate at Ralliart Italy said to me the hard chargers in the first couple of stages won’t be able to keep it up. He was getting beaten on the first day and ended up winning the round. He’s proved the theory and, now I’m involved at that level, you believe it.”
 
Reflecting on his steeped learning curve, Tapper revealed other competitors from the world manufacturer teams are taking interest in the Pirelli development scheme, happy to share information and assist the up-comers.
 
“The vast majority of drivers are a good bunch of guys and even most of the WRC drivers were showing some interest in what we’re doing and what the FIA and Pirelli are doing for us. I ended up sitting on the bonnet of Petter Solberg’s car talking to him for nearly an hour while shakedown was held up. He was genuinely interested in what we’re doing and said he wished something like that was around when he was coming through.”
 
Tapper and Judd are not alone in facing their first Italian event; none of Tapper’s rivals in the Pirelli Star Driver squad have contested an event in Sardinia, so all will be new to the combination of extreme heat and rough road conditions.
 
Tapper said: “It appears the surface is soft and sandy, but it’s solid bed-rock underneath and it does cut-up, especially in the second pass of double-run stages. You have to pick where you drive or you’ll tear wheels off – it’s not like here (New Zealand) where you can keep the same line as everyone else.”
 
Rally d’Italia Sardegna is the sixth of twelve rounds in the 2009 World Rally Championship where Tapper will start down the running order from runaway series leader Sebastién Loeb (Citroen C4) and arch-rival Mikko Hirvonen (Ford Focus RS). Sixty teams from around the world are expected to contest the three day event which traverses the hills and forests to the south of Olbia, an industrial town of on the north-eastern side of the island. Tapper will play his role in the ceremonial start on the Thursday evening which precedes the 17 stage competition.
 
After Rally Italy (22 to 24 May), Tapper and Judd head to Rally 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. The pair will also contest Repco Rally Australia (4-6 September).
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