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The eleventh round of the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship brings competitors and teams down-under for Repco Rally New Zealand from 28 to 31 August with four-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb back at the top of the drivers’ points table.
Following Rallye Deutschland, 15-17 August, which Loeb won for the seventh consecutive time in his Citroën C4 WRC car, the battle for the drivers’ rally championship reached a new high as Ford’s young Finnish star Mikko Hirvonen goes all out to stop Loeb winning a fifth world title.
After the lead in the WRC drivers’ championship has changed hands six times this season, Loeb now has 76 points, four more than Hirvonen, with five rounds of the championship to run.
Repco Rally New Zealand is the third-to-last gravel event of the year and past results indicate the fight between Loeb and Hirvonen will be every bit as intense this year. Last year’s down-to-the-last-tenth-of-a-second duel between Loeb and Ford’s now-retired world champion Marcus Grönholm created the closest finish in WRC history. Grönholm won his fifth New Zealand title by just 0.3 seconds.
Hirvonen has been heard to comment that perhaps he wasn’t quite ready to step into Grönholm’s shoes as Ford’s number one driver this season, but having won two of the toughest events in 2008 – Jordan and Turkey – and come second to either Loeb or his Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala in four of the other ten events to date, the 28-year-old has demonstrated admirable consistency. However, with his German victory a fortnight ago, Loeb now has seven WRC wins this season to add the 36 WRC victories he’s earned over the past few years.
Comparing their New Zealand results over the past few years, 34-year-old Loeb has the advantage. In 2007, Loeb was second, Hirvonen third. In 2006, Hirvonen was second, Loeb wasn’t here due to injury. Loeb won in 2005, but Hirvonen didn’t have a WRC drive that year. In 2004, Loeb was fourth while Hirvonen was seventh in a Subaru. Loeb was also fourth in 2003 as Hirvonen finished tenth in a Ford. Neither had rallied here before 2003.
But anything can happen on a WRC event, and there’s no guarantee that either Loeb or Hirvonen will win Repco Rally New Zealand. Hirvonen’s BP Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala has demonstrated he’s capable of winning a world rally when he became the youngest-ever driver to win a WRC event in Norway earlier this year. Citroën’s Dani Sordo has scored numerous podium finishes – is it the time for the 25-year-old Spaniard to emulate his countryman, the infamous Carlos Sainz and win in New Zealand?
Also there’s no doubt the Subaru World Rally Team is fired up to get either Petter Solberg or Chris Atkinson on to the winner’s dais.
Solberg has competed in New Zealand six times before, every year since 2002, managing three podium finishes in this time, including a win in 2004. Atkinson has competed here three times before, last year with new co-driver Stéphane Prévot alongside to finish fourth.
The Australian Subaru driver says he’s looking forward to Repco Rally New Zealand, “...but we need to find a little more speed if we’re going to compete with the likes of Seb, Mikko and Jari-Matti. We have some good ideas from Finland, so if everything works out, I think we could be strong there. As with last year it’s the closest to my home rally this season so I’m looking forward to getting there, meeting all the guys who are coming over from home, and closing the gap to those in front.”
Solberg is hoping to maintain the good feeling he had with the new hatchback Impreza WRC2008, which Kiwi fans will see running in WRC form for the first time during this event.
Subaru means rally to Kiwis perhaps more than any other vehicle brand in the country and Repco Rally New Zealand marks the 15th anniversary of Subaru’s first WRC win. In 1993, in what was the last rally for the Subaru Legacy, Colin McRae created history for the Japanese marque.
“The win was pivotal in the introduction of the iconic Impreza to the world rallying scene, effectively heralding the new era for the team,” says Subaru World Rally Team principal, David Richards. “It was also to be the first of three wins for Colin in New Zealand, putting him in the elite group of only three drivers to have ever claimed a hat-trick of victories on the event.

Now, 15 years on, the event also marks the 200th WRC start for the Subaru Impreza.
Seeded behind Atkinson, François Duval replaces Gigi Galli for the Stobart Ford team. After his thrilling third place in Germany recently, the Belgium could easily be a top-three contender. Duval’s Stobart team-mate Matthew Wilson hasn’t demonstrated the kind of form needed for a top placing. Interestingly, Duval has only one less drivers’ championship point than Wilson – Duval has contested just two events so far this season while Wilson has run in all ten.
Munchi’s Ford team-mates Federico Villagra and Henning Solberg are seeded ninth and tenth, with Solberg just five points behind younger brother, Petter, on the points table. Suzuki’s Toni Gardemeister and Per-Gunnar Andersson complete the manufacturer-backed team entries, with the two Citroën privateers Urmo Aava and Conrad Rautenbach wrapping up the 14 WRC entries.
Repco Rally New Zealand commences with the official ceremonial start ceremony on Hood Street, Hamilton from 6.30pm on Thursday 28 August. Also in Hood Street, a driving autograph session precedes the official start.
With Loeb at the head of the field, WRC competitors go into the first rally special stage, Fusion Pirongia West, at 9.18am on Friday 29 August. Saturday’s action starts at 9.08am on the Ryco Port Waikato special stage and Sunday morning sees competitors head for the Te Hutewai special stage south of Raglan.
Event passes, the programmes and rally map are available from all Repco stores in New Zealand, online at www.repco.co.nz and at rally headquarters at Mystery Creek Events Centre. Official Repco Rally New Zealand merchandise is available online from www.repco.co.nz and at selected Repco stores, with regular news updates available on the event website, www.rallynz.org.nz.
2008 WRC Drivers’ Championship
1, S Loeb, 76pts
2, M Hirvonen, 72pts
3, D Sordo, 43pts
4, C Atkinson, 40pts
5, J-M Latvala, 34pts
6, P Solberg, 27pts
2008 WRC Manufacturers’ Championship
1, Citroen Total, 123pts
2, BP Ford Abu Dhabi, 115pts
3, Subaru, 69pts
4, Stobart VK M-Sport, 51pts
5, Munchi's Ford, 19pts
6, Suzuki, 13pts
Thursday 28 August                                                             Cars in action
Shakedown at Mystery Creek Event Centre                         8.00am – 12.00noon
Ceremonial Start, Hood St, Hamilton                                     6.30pm – 7:30 pm
Day 1 Friday 29 August – Pirongia/Waitomo      &nb sp;             First car in action
SS1        Fusion Pirongia West 1                                            09.18am
SS2        Castrol Waitomo 1                                                   10.21am
SS3        Fusion Pirongia West 2                                            2.07pm
SS4        Castrol Waitomo 2                                                   3.10pm
SS5        Mystery Creek Super Special 1                              5.03pm
Day 2 Saturday 30 August – Port Waikato/Te Akau
SS6        Ryco Port Waikato                                                  9.08am
SS7        Possum                                                                    9.46am
SS8        CRC Franklin                                                           10.24am
SS9        Mystery Creek Super Special 2                              12.37pm
SS10      ACL Te Akau South                                                 3.03pm
SS11      Champion Batteries Te Akau North                        3.46pm
Day 3 Sunday 31 August – Raglan
SS12      Te Hutewai 1                                                            9.23am
SS13      Whaanga Coast 1                                                    9.51am
SS14      Te Hutewai 2                                                            11.28am
SS15      Whaanga Coast 2                                                    11.56am
SS16      Mystery Creek Super Special 3                              2.00pm
Ceremonial Finish, Mystery Creek Events Centre                3.00pm
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