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BP-Ford can clinch the FIA World Rally Championship manufacturers' title on next week's Rally New Zealand (16 – 19 November).  It goes into the penultimate round with a 16-point lead.  A 19-point advantage by the finish of the three-day rally on the flowing gravel roads of North Island will ensure the crown with one round remaining – so if BP-Ford outscores rivals Kronos Citroen by three points in New Zealand, then the Blue Oval will be guaranteed the title.

Six victories in the first season with the new Focus RS World Rally Car, five for Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and a maiden win for team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen in Australia last month, have already made 2006 the most successful WRC year ever for Ford in terms of wins.

Major route changes mean the event will be virtually new for drivers.  While the base has moved south from Auckland to Hamilton, it will not take away the enticing prospect of New Zealand's roads, which make the longest journey of the WRC season more bearable.  The country's speed tests are widely regarded as the most enjoyable in the championship.  As smooth as a billiard table and gently winding through the lush, green countryside, they usually pose fewer mechanical demands than most gravel events and invite drivers to attack them.   

The event has never been held in November, springtime in the southern hemisphere, and rain is a strong possibility.  However, that tends to bind together the loose gravel on the surface, making conditions less slippery and offering more grip to the early starters.  That would help Grönholm, who will be first to start on the opening leg in the continued absence of the injured Sébastien Loeb.

Grönholm has already secured second in the drivers' standings, and the 38-year-old Finn has clear priorities for New Zealand.  "Of course I would like to win the rally because I start every event hoping to win.  But my priority here has to be scoring good points for the team in the manufacturers' championship.  Maybe I can do both!  I have to be more careful than I was on the last rally in Australia when I crashed.  I must avoid making any stupid mistakes," he said.

"It is great that the team is in this position.  At the start of the season we knew the Focus RS was fast, but what we didn't know was how reliable it would be in its first season.  Reliability has been excellent for an all-new car and I really hope we can take the title.  But it's not something we are taking for granted.  Mikko and I have to go out and earn it because our rivals won't make it easy.

"This is really a new rally for everyone.  I have driven a few stages before in 1998 but much has changed since then so I will make new pace notes for the whole rally.  I'm sure the new stages will be just as good as the others were.  The roads there are fast, the surface is good and they are nicely cambered.  It's easy to attack – the hard part is not attacking too much!" added Grönholm, who has three wins and two second places from eight starts in New Zealand.  

Hirvonen has had little time to reflect on his first WRC win in Perth at the end of last month.  "It was a great occasion and I enjoyed every single second of it," said 26-year-old Hirvonen.  "But now it's a new rally and I'm ready for fresh battles.  Having won once I know that I can win again and I want to prove that Australia wasn't just a one-off, that I can fight for victory against Marcus and Seb.  But in New Zealand the important thing to remember is our challenge for the manufacturers' title.  I must not risk losing points by pushing too hard.

"I don't have great experience in New Zealand, with just two previous starts.  That shouldn't be a problem because almost all the stages are new for everyone and knowledge of the roads won't be a factor.  I enjoy the stages there.  They are fast and the camber allows a driver to drift the car through the bends while keeping the power on," added Hirvonen.

Team News

* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyres and teams are only allowed to nominate one tread pattern this year.  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 are available in soft, medium and hard compounds.  

* The team today completes a six-day test in northern Britain.  Marcus Grönholm initially carried out a two-day transmission development test in Cumbria's Greystoke and Lowther Park forests at the start of the week.  The Finn then completed two days' preparation work for Rally GB in the Forest of Ae in southern Scotland, before Mikko Hirvonen completed his Rally GB set-up work in Hobcarton and Whinlatter Forests, close to M-Sport's Dovenby Hall base.

* The M-Sport run Stobart-VK Rally Team has entered two 2006-specification Focus RS WRCs for Britons Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Argentines Luis Perez Companc / Jose Maria Volta.  

Rally Route

The rally shows major changes with the base moving 130km south from Auckland to Hamilton, close to North Island's west coast.  There will be a single service park for the first time at the Mystery Creek Events Centre, a few kilometres south-east of the city.  The event will not journey north of Auckland and instead all the stages are based west of Hamilton, many hugging the Tasman Sea coastline.  Some have not been used since the mid-1990s, with two tests on the second leg brand new and another unused since 1982.  The opening leg, south-west of Hamilton, is the longest and includes two passes over the 43.88km Te Koraha test, the longest of the season.  The second leg is north-east of the city and both days end with a super special stage at Mystery Creek which surrounds the service park.  The final leg is the only part of the rally common with 2005, and includes two passes over the classic Whaanga Coast test, regarded as one of the best in the entire championship.  There are 17 stages in total, covering 358.48km in a route of 1354.26km.

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