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Kiwi rally driver Mark Tapper has battled a recurring car fault that ultimately sidelined his second World Rally Championship event in the Pirelli Star Driver programme, competing in this weekend’s Rally d’Italia Sardegna.

Driving a Ralliart Italia team-prepared Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X, 28-year old Tapper and co-driver Jeff Judd only contested two of the three days through the Italian holiday island resort, the sixth round of the World Rally Championship (WRC).

Following a steady start, Aucklander Tapper revealed that the car was still besieged by a power problem that occurred during his opening event in Portugal last month.  By the third stage of the rally the pair were losing ground against the four other identical Mitsubishi cars in the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA)-backed driver development programme to contest six of this year’s WRC rounds.

“The car was cutting out completely with a fuel starvation problem.  We were asked to try and make it back to the service park by the team, but eventually the car stopped totally on the road section after the stage,” said Tapper, having to retire from the opening day.

Re-starting Saturday morning, Tapper set third fastest time in the Production World Rally Championship (P-WRC) field, 17th outright and less than a minute behind eventual rally winner Jari-Matti Latvala in a works Ford Focus.

“The car wasn’t perfect,” described Tapper of his result.  “We still suffered from the same problem in the slow corners but the stage had very few of them. I guess this shows that with a good car we will be on the pace.”

However a change the pair struck trouble again in the next stage.  “This stage was again very twisty and we suffered right from the start with the engine cutting out.  Eventually this caught me out.  We came over a crest, braked hard and turned into a third gear corner.  As I went for the gas the car momentarily stalled, which caused the back of the car to step out and hit a rock on the outside of the road.  That pulled the front in and we impacted with a tree, right in the centre of the bonnet. The damage was fairly minimal but the radiator was broken so we stopped to prevent any more damage.”

Stranded in 38 degree Celsius heat in the hills above host city Olbia, Tapper and Judd said they were forced to retire from a safety point-of-view.  “The car was becoming dangerous to drive and it was only a matter of time before it would end up in another accident for us.”

“We also were completely out of the running after two disastrous days rallying, so we wanted the team to use the time to get the car right before the next round in Greece.  Then we can have a rally free of mechanical gremlins and prove that with a car working right we can drive competitively for three days.  The team are very professional and want things to be perfect just like we all do.”

Tapper will now spend two weeks in Cyprus with fellow Pirelli Star Driver team-mate Nicos Thomas, training and acclimatising to the heat expected in Greece (10 to 14 June), the third of six rounds in the 2009 programme.

Photo courtesy of Rally New Zealand - World Rally Press, Hiroshi Seiki.

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