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More details of the prize won by the five regional winners of this year’s inaugural world-wide Pirelli star driver competition have been released by World Motor Sport Council, part of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

The Asia Pacific winner, Kiwi rally driver Mark Tapper, is now confirmed to drive a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution car supplied by Ralliart Italy in six rounds of the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship. After scoring the most points in the final Asia Pacific qualifying event, Rally Malaysia, the 27-year-old Tapper was named the Asia Pacific Pirelli star driver of 2008 and awarded the Pirelli-funded prize valued at half a million Euros (approx. $NZ 1,100,000).

Launched this year by the FIA, the Pirelli star driver scheme funds five young drivers – one from each of the Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa regions and two from Europe – win the opportunity to compete in six World Championship rallies in 2009 using a Group N – or standard production specification – car.

Coming to grips with the fact he now has an opportunity to prove his rallying talents on the world stage with a fully-funded drive worth over one million New Zealand dollars, Tapper is excited to finally realise a lifelong dream. 

“This is something I have been working toward my whole life,” Tapper said from his Auckland home. “To actually now have the opportunity to rally competitively in the World Rally Championship in a car like the Mitsubishi EVO that I’m very familiar with is the beginning of a whole new challenge.”

“The aim is to be the best of the five [Pirelli drivers] at each event,” he added. “We’ve been told the top driver from next year will be driving a number of rallies in a WRC car paid for by Pirelli and the FIA in the next season that follows. So obviously that is the next goal at the moment.”

Tapper has yet to confirm his co-driver for the six WRC rounds, which are Portugal (3-5 April), Italy (22-24 May), Greece (12-14 June), Finland (31 July - 2 August), Spain (2-4 October) and Great Britain (23-25 October).

“I’m also trying to raise additional money as four out of those six rounds are also rounds of the Production Car World Rally Championship (PCWRC). As our cars will be exactly the same Group N specification as the PCWRC, I’d like to do Argentina and Australia as well so that I am doing that full campaign as well as the Pirelli award.”

“At the moment I am trying to find the funding to be able to live in Europe and concentrate on training every day and living near the team and being a keen Kiwi about it,” commented Tapper. “I know that people appreciate hard work and dedication and if you turn up from the other side of the world and disappear again, you’re never going to get the best out of the relationship or the team. Rallying in New Zealand is strong and, sure, we have got the best roads in the world, but rallying in Europe is where it is at.”

President of MotorSport New Zealand, Steven Kennedy says the organisation’s members and executive could not be more delighted with Mark’s success.

“Mark did the job in what proved to be a very difficult rally to get to this stage and we are sure he will do well at the international level. He has been a consistent competitor in rallying for many years and was a member of the first intake to the MotorSport Academy, which is now playing such an important role in developing young rally and race drivers,” said Kennedy.

“This Pirelli-backed scholarship is the biggest opportunity ever offered to a young New Zealand rally driver. It is effectively a works drive which will take Mark’s knowledge and skills to a new level. 

“It is extremely difficult and expensive for a Kiwi to compete at the WRC level, yet, as we have seen in the past, our top drivers are very competitive given good machinery. We are sure Mark will take the opportunities offered by the Pirelli star driver competition and carry the Kiwi flag with distinction."

A similar opportunity to compete in world rallying could await another young Kiwi in 2009 commented Chris Carr, chairman of Rally New Zealand.

“The Pirelli star driver competition will also run in 2009 with the two qualifying events expected to be the Queensland Rally in Australia in May and Rally Indonesia in October,” said Carr. “Drivers under the age of 27 on 1 January 2009 are eligible to enter and there will be a financial assistance fund for those young Kiwi drivers who wish to compete in these events and possibly win the 2009 Asia Pacific Pirelli star driver title.”

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