New Zealand gravel rush excites Ford's Finnish drivers
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will tackle the longest round of the FIA World Rally Championship for almost six years when it makes the arduous journey from Britain to New Zealand next week. Organisers of Rally New
Zealand (6 - 9 May) have fully embraced new-for-2010 rules to increase the competitive distance in the North Island to just under 400km, the most since Rally Deutschland in August 2004.
Not that Ford drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila will complain as the flowing, cambered gravel roads are regarded among the best in the world. Despite spending more than 24 hours in the air en route to the rally base in Auckland, the Finnish quartet eagerly awaits the opportunity to tackle New Zealand's speed tests in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars on the rally's return to the WRC after a year's absence.
The event returns to Auckland after being based further south in Hamilton since 2006. The move allows the route to venture north onto roads in the Whangarei and Kaipara districts that have not been used since 2005. Short remote service zones away from the city are a feature on each of the three legs and mixed surface special stages are also prevalent as organisers give the rally format a shake-up.
The roads in the Land of the Long White Cloud are as smooth as a billiard table and wind through lush, green countryside, inviting drivers to attack. The scenery is as stunning as the roads, and the picture postcard views over the Tasman Sea from the classic Whaanga Coast stage on the final day are among the best in the championship.
Hirvonen, who climbed to second in the drivers' standings after his podium finish in Turkey earlier this month, has a strong record in New Zealand with a second and two thirds from his last three starts. The 29-year-old is a confirmed fan of New Zealand's stages.
"I'm excited to be going back there again," he enthused. "It's a great country and we always receive a warm welcome in Auckland. Then, when I get out on the stages, I remember just why it's alongside Finland as my favourite rallies in the championship. It's fast, it's smooth and it's fun. And there's a bigger emphasis on endurance, with more competitive kilometres and limited time during the day for service. It's good to have a longer rally.
"Every rally has something unique and here it's the cambered roads. They encourage a driver to attack, but they can also catch you out. When the car crosses the camber it often jumps. If you are on the wrong side of the camber when you brake for a corner, you can find yourself in trouble because the car will just slide.
"It's autumn in New Zealand and the weather can be cool and wet. That won't be easy with hard compound tyres because it will be difficult to get heat into them, but it will be the same for everyone. They will bite into the gravel, but trying to find good grip on the asphalt, especially when it's at the start of the stage, won't be so easy," added Hirvonen.
Latvala, who is fourth in the drivers' standings, has started Rally New Zealand four times, with a best finish of fifth in 2007. However, the 25-year-old will make new pace notes for the entire rally.
"I've only driven the roads north of Auckland once before, and that was in 2005 in a Group N car," he said. "I remember them to be faster than the stages south of the city. Notes for a World Rally Car need to be very different from those for a Group N car. My style of notes has also changed since the rally was last in the championship two years ago, so I will make fresh notes for the whole rally.
"The character of the stages reminds me of my home event in Finland, but without the jumps. The car feels as if it is dancing in the road through the flowing corners. The roads are normally used by the public so the surface is hard and smooth and they are in good condition, so they are kind to the cars. Despite the long flight, I'm happy to go back to Auckland. It's a great city, the stages are fantastic to drive and it's the opportunity to put my crash in Turkey on the last round out of my mind," he added.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Three other Focus RS WRCs are entered. Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart M-Sport Ford team in Focus RS WRCs, while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc will drive for the Munchi's Ford squad in a similar car. The rally is the fourth round of the S-WRC support championship and four Ford Fiesta S2000 cars are entered.
* Despite the delays encountered by team members and cars returning to England following the Rally of Turkey due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, the team's air freight left for New Zealand on schedule on Wednesday. It is due to arrive in Auckland over the weekend.