Rally New Zealand – Ford preview
- 27th August 2007, 8:52am
The speed tests south of Auckland share many characteristics with Rally Finland, home event of BP-Ford drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and scene of an epic battle for victory between the duo earlier this month. Fast, smooth as a billiard table and cambered, the North Island roads gently wind through lush, green countryside. They are widely regarded as the most enjoyable in the championship and invite drivers to attack.
Only once before has the rally been held in August, which is late winter in the southern hemisphere, and rain is a strong possibility. However, this could assist Grönholm as it binds together the loose gravel on the road surface, making conditions less slippery and offering more grip to the early starters. As championship leader, the 39-year-old Finn will be first to start.
Reigning manufacturers' champion BP-Ford goes into its longest journey of the season with a 41-point advantage in the 2007 standings. Grönholm, chasing his third world drivers' crown, is eight points clear and his record in New Zealand is outstanding with four wins and two second place finishes from nine starts. The event has good memories for the team as it was here that it clinched the world title in 2006.
"I can win there but I need to score the highest points possible," said Grönholm. "Losing second place on the final stage in Germany earlier this month has increased my determination for New Zealand. My focus and concentration are already high but I have to try to raise them even higher to avoid the kind of mistake I made then.
"The rally is quite similar to Finland but without the jumps. It's very fast but there are also some slow sections with more camber on the roads than Finland. The surface is nice to drive on because it's smooth and there are no big rocks to hit the car and cause damage. The Focus RS is strong and can take big hits but it helps knowing that the chances of finding rocks and boulders on the driving line are virtually non-existent," he added.
Hirvonen has a 100 per cent finishing record in New Zealand from three starts, second last year being his best result. "The stages are fantastic, proper drivers' roads with corner following corner and they're great to attack. After my performance in Finland I can't wait to go there because I want to repeat what I did in Finland. Last year I wasn't so far behind Marcus' speed so I think it's realistic to aim to fight for a win," said 27-year-old Hirvonen.
"It's all about speed because there isn't a lot to hit there. The only thing to look out for is the small banks on the inside of corners. Drivers can't cut the bends as much as on the stages north of Auckland that we used to drive. If you hit a bank it can knock the car off line or even send it into a roll," he added.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyre for the low-wear loose surface roads. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. The tyres will be available in soft, medium and hard compounds.
* The team will run just two cars in New Zealand. The rally is not part of the programme for Abu Dhabi driver Khalid Al Qassimi and co-driver Nicky Beech, whose next outing will be Rally Catalunya in October.
* BP-Ford will enter a Focus RS WRC on the Cork '20' International Rally, the final round of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, on 28 - 30 September. The entry is to provide the team with more experience of Irish roads in preparation for the WRC's maiden visit to Rally Ireland in November and follows Grönholm's victory on the Galway International Rally there in February. No driver has yet been nominated for the Cork event.
* Both drivers will test in Corsica next month in preparation for October's Rallye de France. Grönholm will drive on 13 - 14 September with Hirvonen taking over for the following two days. The test will be based on roads close to Bastia.
The itinerary is virtually identical to 2006 with only a few minor changes to some stages. It is again based at Hamilton, 130km south of Auckland and close to North Island's west coast, with a single service park at the Mystery Creek Events Centre, a few kilometres to the south. After a ceremonial start in Hamilton on Thursday evening, the opening leg heads south-west and includes two passes over the 43.88km Waitomo stage – one of the longest in the championship. The second leg is based north-west and is the longest of the rally. The super special stage at Mystery Creek, which surrounds the service park, has been moved from the end of the day to the middle of the leg. The final leg hugs the Tasman Sea coastline and includes a remote service zone at Raglan. The highlight is two passes over the classic Whaanga Coast test, regarded as one of the best in the entire championship, before ending with a third pass over the Mystery Creek test. There are 18 stages in total, covering 353.56km in a route of 1255.98km.
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