South Auckland rally driver Mark Tapper has topped off the weekend’s final round of the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) by coming home as the second Pirelli Star Driver in Wales Rally GB.
The rally was the final event for 28-year-old Tapper and his Christchurch  based co-driver Jeff Judd as one of the inaugural group of Pirelli Star Drivers. The pair bought their Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X through 348km of wet, muddy Welsh roads to finish second among the Pirelli competitors and 17th outright behind the World Rally Cars.
“It would have been very, very disappointing to get here without finishing a rally this season, so it’s a nice feeling,” said Tapper who has contested six events in six different countries in the Pirelli-backed programme. Mechanical woes have continually hampered the pair so they were keen to finish their world rally campaign with a result.
However Tapper had a nervous start when he put the car off the road on the first day. “We lost about 40 seconds on the Friday and were a bit slow during Saturday, but on Sunday we came out to try pick up a place and after a ‘moment’ on the first stage, we decided we’d just bring it home. But we also had some gearbox problems where it kept jumping out of second gear, so we had to nurse that to the finish.
“We made it in the end, so that was quite important to us all.”
This year, Tapper has been one of five Pirelli Star Drivers who won the opportunity to compete in six WRC events in the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) initiative to help bring new drivers into the WRC from around the world.
None of the Pirelli drivers had contested Rally Great Britain before so they were on a level playing field. Czech Republic driver Martin Semerád finished as the best-placed Pirelli driver in 14th overall. Nicos Thomas (Cyprus) was 23rd overall with Jon Williams (South Africa) suffering a gearbox problem to finish 28th. Jarkko Nikara (Finland) had led Group N and all of the Production Car World Rally Championship runners on the first day, before sliding off the road on the second day to return on Sunday via SupeRally and register 35th place overall. All five Ralliart Italy-tuned Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xs made it to the finish of this final round of the WRC, a feat not achieved in any of the other Pirelli Star Driver events this year.
Initially Tapper described the event as having roads similar to the Maramarua Forest south of Auckland, although he had a slightly different perspective post-event. “It was more like old-fashioned Southland winter rallies, but without any snow or ice as it was probably always 10-13 degrees (Celsius) but the road roads were very comparable to South Island forests in general.”
The event was run six weeks earlier than usual and competitors found the wintry Welsh countryside more hospitable than is typical on this rally.
“We were lucky, we didn’t have any fog, although it was wet and we had some rain showers in places,” Tapper said of the event that rewarded Citroen’s Sebastién Loeb with his sixth consecutive drivers’ championship title.
With 51 classified finishers from the 64 starters, Tapper’s result of fifth in the Production World Rally Championship category for the event is expected to give the New Zealander some quality television coverage often lacking during the season. Results and TV coverage underpin Tapper’s hopes of opening opportunities to compete at the top-level again next year.
Tapper and Judd arrive back in New Zealand on Wednesday and the long-term competition partnership will take a break until they can confirm the opportunity to represent New Zealand on the world rallying stage.
Although Tapper’s season as a Pirelli Star Driver is now complete, New Zealand rally fans can look forward to following the fortunes of another talented Kiwi rally driver Hayden Paddon, who won the selection process to compete as the Asia Pacific region Pirelli Star Driver in 2010. The rallies being contested by the 2010 Pirelli Star Drivers are expected to be Jordan (2-4 April), Portugal (28-30 May), Finland (30 July – 1 August), Germany (20-22 August), France (1-3 October) and Great Britain (12-14 November).
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