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New Zealand rally driving team Mark Tapper and Jeff Judd impressed during their first Pirelli Star Driver outing in the World Rally Championship (WRC) event held in Portugal over the weekend.
Having never rallied on the demanding Portuguese roads before, Tapper brought the bright yellow, Pirelli-back Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X home second amongst the Pirelli Star Drivers and a very credible fifth in the Production World Rally Championship (P-WRC) in which he is also collecting points.
Hampered early in the weekend by a recurring rib injury, Tapper was 50th fastest around the super special stage in the Algarve Stadium and was in severe pain before Sebastién Loeb’s personal chiropractor rectified the issue. This allowed the 28-year-old a comfortable run for the remainder of the weekend.
Tapper completed day one as the top Pirelli Star Driver, despite having been seeded to start behind his four fellow Pirelli competitors due to his lack of knowledge on this specific European event.  Throughout the first day, Tapper improved his relative stage times, first 26th fastest, then 25th, 21st, 19th, 17th and, through the day’s final stage, 15th fastest from 62 competitors. Tapper’s time was one minute, 25 seconds slower than five-time world rally champion Sebastién Loeb, a noteworthy achievement.
Day one’s strong performance also saw Tapper ranked fourth in the P-WRC field, so he started much further up the seeding order for day two and four places head of the other four Pirelli competitors in identical cars.
Regrettably Saturday’s competition included the challenges of a failed power-steering unit for Tapper and Judd. The sole Kiwi driving combination in the Portuguese rally retired from the day and had their Lancer EVO X repaired to resume competition for the final day, taking time penalties to keep them in the overall rankings.
Continuing with relative restraint Tapper set a comfortable pace to get to the end of the event.
“We wanted to finish in this debut Pirelli Star Driver event,” he said. “So we ran at 90 to 95 per cent of our normal pace.”
Achieving more modest 28th fastest stage times as other competitors fell out of contention, Tapper improved to finish second placed Pirelli Star Driver. (Jon Williams from South Africa was the best-placed Pirelli driver and took 23rd overall).
Amongst the Pirelli Star Drivers only Tapper and 18-year-old Martin Semerad from the Czech Republic are registered for the Production World Rally Championship. Tapper’s focused performance earns him fifth place on the P-WRC standings for this event and eighth on the P-WRC points’ table.
Tapper said he was continually trying to establish the optimum handing performance for the newly-built car.
“Road conditions were so vastly different throughout the event, it added to the learning curve. They are just so technical and so demanding, the brows and the turns, and if your notes aren’t 100 per cent right, boy, you’re in big trouble very, very quickly,” said Tapper of his first experience on the fast Portuguese roads.
His feelings were mixed, he said, about finishing second amongst the Pirelli drivers. “This was disappointing given the strong start to the weekend, but finishing the event itself was more important. We just stuck with our plan; take no risks as we wanted a finish.”
Both Tapper and Judd will return to New Zealand ahead of their second round in the Pirelli Star Driver schedule, Rally Italy from 22 to 24 May.
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