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The world’s top rally drivers are heading to this year’s Repco Rally New Zealand, the 11th round of the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship, with rally organisers confirming 65 entries by the close-off date, 23 July.
 
Last year’s split-second battle between current world rally champion Sébastien Loeb in a Citroën and former world rally champion Marcus Grönholm in a Ford on the last day of Rally New Zealand delivered the closest-ever finish in world rally history. This season the Citroën-Ford tussle continues with just as much heat with Ford’s Finnish rally star Mikko Hirvonen taking over as Loeb’s major opponent, where Grönholm left off when he retired at the end of 2007.
 
Other world-class drivers entered for the 39th running of New Zealand’s international rally include Loeb’s Citroën team-mate Dani Sordo and Hirvonen’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, the youngest-ever driver to win a WRC round when he won in Sweden earlier this year and a former Production World Rally Championship (P-WRC) class winner in New Zealand in 2006.
 
As well as the BP Fords of Hirvonen and Latvala, four more WRC Fords arrive for Italian Gigi Galli, Englishman Matthew Wilson, Argentinean Federico Villagra and Norway’s Henning Solberg. The proposed seventh Ford for Argentine driver Luis Pérez Companc is no longer coming to New Zealand, with Companc, whose family business backs the Munchi’s Ford team, making this week’s Rally Finland his final WRC event.
 
The Subaru World Rally Team fields regular drivers Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson in the new-shape Subaru Impreza WRC2008 car – the first time Kiwi rally fans have seen the hatchback in WRC form. The Subaru team is targeting New Zealand for their first win since Mexico 2005 and is sure to be on the pace.
 
The 14-strong WRC field is rounded out by Suzuki’s first WRC appearance in New Zealand with Finn Toni Gardemeister and Swede Per-Gunnar Andersson who says he thinks the new SX4 WRC will do well here.
 
“If the weather is good, New Zealand is one of my favourites,” says Andersson. “I have not competed there since 2005 when I participated in my Suzuki Ignis, so I am looking forward to it. The roads are in good condition, and the mix of fast flowing and very twisty stages makes the event very interesting.”
 
Following the WRC cars throughout the three days of rallying on Waikato and Franklin roads will be 24 Production World Rally Championship competitors, including three New Zealanders. Chris West and Hayden Paddon are in this class, courtesy of winning a Rally New Zealand scholarship, while Hawke’s Bay’s Stewart Taylor takes over the P-WRC entry of Amjad Farrah and the Orion World Rally Team for this event using his usual Mitsubishi.
 
The P-WRC field hails from far and wide around the world, says Repco Rally New Zealand general manager Paul Mallard.
 
“Last year we said we couldn’t recall drivers of so many nationalities coming to compete here. We had entrants from 24 countries then, but this year we have entrants from 25 countries, including Italy, Zimbabwe and China. So once again, we can say with assurance that Repco Rally New Zealand is truly popular with drivers and teams from all over the world,” says Mallard.
 
“We’re delighted to see Stewart Taylor have this opportunity with a P-WRC team and to welcome back Subaru Rally Team USA driver Ken Block. With regular P-WRC star Toshi Arai, Red Bull Rallye Team’s Andreas Aigner and another Finnish rally star Juho Hänninen here with Ralliart New Zealand, we have a talent-filled P-WRC field set to contest Repco Rally New Zealand.”
 
Another 27 competitors, classed ‘non-priority’ under WRC rules, complete the field. Of these, 14 are vying for points in the Vantage Aluminium Joinery New Zealand Rally Championship. This ‘all-comers’ entry list is led by Richard Mason, with co-driver and his wife Sara, the current holder of the John Woolf and Grant Whittaker Memorial Trophy for first New Zealander home on last year’s event.
 
Other notable entries in this group include the ever-spectacular Andrew Hawkeswood, as well as former Chinese rally champion Cao Liu Dong in a Possum Bourne Motorsport-run Subaru and New Zealander Tony Green competing in his first-ever rally on home soil. Green, who won the last round of the Chinese championship, is relatively unknown in New Zealand but has competed in a Subaru in the United Kingdom and China with distinction.
 
Also amongst the ‘all-comers’ field, five Ford Fiestas participate in the Ford Fiesta Sporting Trophy with two cars from the same family; Dermott Malley, with wife Linzi, take on son Patrick with experienced co-driver Raymond ‘Crunch’ Bennett alongside. Young Australian Brendon Reeves returns to New Zealand after enjoying his first rally here in the NAC Insurance Hella International Rally of Whangarei in a Fiesta earlier in the year. The student mechanics from Japan’s Takayama College, an automotive technical institute, return to New Zealand to gain hands-on WRC experience with their teacher Tomoki Ohashi driving their car.
 
Repco Rally New Zealand takes place from Thursday 28 August until Sunday 31 August. It is the 11th of the 15 rounds in the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship, the sixth of eight rounds in the 2008 FIA Production World Rally Championship and the fifth of six rounds in the 2008 New Zealand Rally Championship.
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