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The gravel roads of New Zealand may provide a key to the outcome in this year’s FIA World Rally  Championship.   

Current FIA World Rally Championship leader Marcus Gronholm brings a slim eight point advantage  to his favourite rally roads for the 38th Rally New Zealand that begins next Friday. The 11th round of  the WRC will be based in Hamilton, heading to the King Country, Waikato and Franklin districts.   

A costly mistake on the final stage in today’s Rally Germany saw the Finnish driver slip to fourth  place while defending champion Sebastien Loeb forged to his sixth straight victory in the tarmac  event.    Loeb (Citroen) has closed the gap to just eight points but will need to continue that momentum in  New Zealand next week if he is to secure a third successive world rally championship.   

The Frenchman has been all-but unbeatable on tarmac surfaces but faces three of the final six rallies  on gravel which is the favoured surface of the flying Finn.   

“I hope I am strong enough on asphalt but there are three gravel rallies on the calendar still to race as  well and I have to fight with Marcus,” Loeb said. “It will be tough but I am confident.”   

There are two other factors for the Citroen team to concern themselves with in New Zealand.    Loeb has not run on many of the roads on Rally New Zealand after he missed last year’s event with  injury. He did complete reconnaissance but has not driven most of the first two legs in competition  mode.   

Of potentially more concern is a second successive engine failure in Germany for Loeb’s teammate  Dani Sordo, with an identical set-up in both cars.    “The problem was the same as in Finland, it was the cylinder block,” said Citroen team principal Guy  Frequelin. “We must find a solution very quickly. Having a problem like this for two rallies in a row is  very unusual. We must dispatch our engine to New Zealand on Friday and we have to solve it.”   

The heat is also on Gronholm who was looking strong in second place behind Loeb until his  uncharacteristic mistake on the final stage cost him four championship points. 

"We were warned there was a cow near the road," said Grönholm.  "The marshal waved us through  and I drove round it with no problem but it put me off and I lost concentration.  I wasn't listening to the  pace notes properly and 100m later I slid wide on a left corner.  The right rear of the car hit a wall and  it spun round.  I finished the stage and we had to repair the suspension to drive to the finish.

"We were closer to Sébastien Loeb here than on previous asphalt events and that's encouraging. But  it was disappointing.  Now we have to be sharper on the next round in New Zealand and make no  mistakes," he added. 

Gronholm will be chasing a record fifth victory in New Zealand on roads he says are the best in world  rallying.    However another slip-up and Loeb could leave Rally New Zealand as the leader in the World Rally  Championship.   

Rally New Zealand starts with the traditional shakedown test at Mystery Creek on Thursday,  August 30 ahead of the Ceremonial Start in downtown Hamilton on Thursday evening.    The rally proper begins on Friday, August 31 in the Otorohanga and Waitomo region, day two is in the  Franklin District and northern Waikato and final day in Raglan, with super special stages each day  back at the rally headquarters and service park at Mystery Creek.  

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