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It’s all change as the Subaru World Rally Team heads back to the southern hemisphere for Rally New Zealand, which has a new date, route and base for 2006.

Only four of the 17 fast, flowing gravel stages are identical to those used on last year’s rally. Of the other tests, Pirongia West and Te Koraha were last used on the 1998 event and the last time Port Waikato was part of the route was back in 1982!

The new base is the Mystery Creek Events Centre near Hamilton, 120km south of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. The venue will play host to the rally headquarters, indoor service park, plus a Super Special which is part of the route on Friday and Saturday night.

It is spring in New Zealand, and the temperature is expected to be between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius – much cooler than last year’s event, which was held in April. The lower temperatures and long stages will put the onus on tyre choice.

The stunning gravel roads in New Zealand are like rollercoasters that carve through the lush green countryside of the North Island. The stages contain several off-camber corners, and the trick is to find the right set-up and get into a rhythm as soon as possible, in order to make the car ‘float’ from corner to corner.

After the ceremonial start on Thursday 16 November, the opening leg of the rally on Friday will take place in the Pirongia-Waitomo region to the west of Hamilton. The drivers will face two passes through the 43km Te Koraha stage, which is smooth, fast and flowing.

One of the highlights of leg two is the return of the dauntingly fast 32km Te Akau South and North stages, while leg three takes the crews onto more familiar roads near Raglan and includes the 29km Whaanga Coast test, which features some of the most spectacular scenery of any rally on the calendar and is a favourite with both drivers and spectators.

The event will cover a total of 358 competitive kilometres and the winning car will cross the finish ramp in Hamilton on Sunday at 15.00hrs (local time).

The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Rally New Zealand, one Impreza WRC2006 for Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and another for Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). New Zealand has been a happy hunting ground for Petter, who celebrates his 32nd birthday on the Saturday of this year’s rally. He has contested the event six times and won it in 2004. He also finished third in 2003 and 2005, and seventh in 2001. Chris has contested the rally twice and guided his Subaru Impreza WRC2005 into the points by finishing seventh last year.

Driver quotes
Petter Solberg:
“I’m very confident about New Zealand, because it has always been a good rally for us in the past. We were strong in Australia and hopefully can improve a little bit more on that. I’m really hoping to win again soon, but we have to take things step-by-step, and I know the team is working very hard, so we’ll just have to wait and see how things turn out. We’ll be using some stages that I haven’t driven before, but all the other drivers will be in the same situation, so it won’t be a problem. The pace notes will help us to get into a rhythm quite quickly. I’m sorry that it’s going to be a little bit colder in New Zealand now that the rally has moved from April to November!”

Chris Atkinson: “It’s going to be a tough rally with some long stages. We’ll be looking to continue the good pace we showed at the beginning of Rally Australia, although I’ll be looking forward to a bit of a change of fortune too. I’ve done Rally New Zealand twice before – last year I finished seventh with Subaru and the year before that I was driving a Group N Impreza – but we’re going to be using some new roads for this year. In terms of a result, we’d hope to be running in the top five and if we can do that, there’s always the chance of being in the hunt for a podium.”

Team quotes
Luis Moya, Subaru World Rally Team sporting director:
“There are a few factors we have to take into consideration. This event is paired with Australia, so we’re using the same cars as the previous rally and we have to re-prepare them in New Zealand. Historically we’ve gone quite well in New Zealand – we won there with Richard Burns in 2001 and with Petter in 2004 – and we’ve got an excellent road position, which will play a part in the result. A lot of the stages haven’t been used for a long time, but they’re all classic New Zealand stages. Whaanga Coast is a phenomenal stage that could catch a few people out. It is corner after corner and could be where the rally is won and lost. It will be interesting to see our performance on the second passes through the stages, because that will be crucial to the result of the rally. The ambient temperature is low at the moment, so that’s going to make tyre selection tricky. Like Sardinia earlier this year, this rally is going to be all about having the right tyres on the car at the right time. Building on the performance advantages we found in Turkey and Australia is going to be key as well, and the target is to get both cars into the top five.”

Between the rallies
It’s been a relaxing time for the drivers since the previous WRC event, Rally Australia, in late October. After his second place finish in Perth, Petter Solberg traveled to Bali to holiday with his family. He was due to leave the Indonesian island today (Friday 10 November) to fly to Auckland and begin his preparations for Rally New Zealand. Chris Atkinson is based in Oxford these days, so he took full advantage of the gap between the each leg of the WRC’s Antipodean double-header to spend some time with his friends and family on Australia’s Gold Coast. On Monday Chris will fly from Brisbane to Auckland to link up with the Subaru team.
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