Stobart Squad Sail into Sixth and Seventh
The Stobart M-Sport Ford World Rally Team leave the 40th edition of Rally New Zealand with a double points finish after another action-packed WRC round.
Matthew Wilson/Scott Martin led the way for the Stobart squad as the 23-year-old
driver maintained a steady rhythm throughout the three-day event and finished in sixth position -- Wilson's best ever WRC finish in New Zealand. Team-mate Henning Solberg/Ilka Minor reported handling issues during the first 14 stages but despite various problems the Norwegian driver still managed to produce a clear run, finishing seventh overall.
This year's Rally New Zealand returned to its base in Auckland after an absence of four years. The move enabled rally organisers to reintroduce fast, flowing stages from 2005's rally alongside four brand new stages comprising of mixed gravel and tarmac road surfaces. A new service park at Queen's Wharf was built beside Auckland Harbour and thousands of enthusiastic fans flocked to the city's waterfront to watch the rally's official ceremonial start on Thursday evening.
The first full day of action began in dry conditions and saw fifty-six competitors venture north to the Whangareri and Kaipara region for a series of eight stages along fast, flowing gravel roads. Mild temperatures and lack of rainfall meant that stages were dusty with a thick layer of gravel -- this held an early disadvantage for front running drivers who were forced to 'sweep' loose gravel from the stage.
Matthew Wilson took full advantage of his road position and finished SS2 second-fastest, just 1.2 seconds behind leader Sebastien Ogier. The 23-year-old continued to make steady progress until his door glass shattered half way through the rally's longest stage, Bull 1, and dust poured into his Ford Focus RS WRC. However, both Stobart crews took advantage of Loeb hitting a bridge in SS4's 22.20km gravel stage and the Cumbrian squads moved up into sixth and seventh position as they pulled into the midday remote service at Whangerai.
Henning Solberg reported handling issues in the rally's opening day so his mechanics changed the rear diff at the overnight service. Wilson continued to made steady progress throughout the afternoon's stages but on SS8 reported problems with his gearbox. This cost the young driver valuable time and the gap between Mikko Hirvonen lying in fifth position and Wilson extended to 20.4 seconds at the end of SS8.
Day two's stages were based south of Auckland, in the Franklin and Northern Waikato region with parts of the tests used in 2006, 2007 and 2008's rally and a repeat loop of a new 4.68km Super Special Stage set on tarmac at the new international Hampton Downs Motor Race Circuit. Sebastien Loeb
recorded an extremely fast time during SS10 which moved the French driver into sixth position and knocked Wilson back into seventh.
Solberg continued to struggle with handling and braking issues but another short 15 minute remote service meant his mechanics were pushed for time and unable to make the necessary changes to improve the Ford Focus RS WRC's performance. As an interim measure, Solberg's mechanics adjusted the gear pot sensor and steering column which noticeably improved the Norwegian's performance in the afternoon - Solberg was second-fastest in SS16 until he reached 19.2km when he encountered difficulties braking.
Overnight rain on Saturday night meant the final four tests covering 81.70km near the west coast town of Raglan were quite slippery. Wilson reported that the rain would help bind the road surface together and help his performance on the opening test - he went on to finish the 11.18km Te Hutewai stage fifth-fastest, just 0.7 seconds slower than leader Sebastien Loeb
. Solberg remained steady finishing SS19 seventh-fastest.
The Whaanga Coast stage, SS19 and SS21, is one of the most picturesque stage in the WRC calendar and consists of a variety of crests, open roads and twisting corners which run along the spectacular Tasman Sea coastline. An exciting battle ensued and during the rally's final stage, the Stobart squad moved up into sixth and seventh position overall after Petter Solberg collided with a telegraph pole forcing the 35-year-old Norwegian to retire.
The Stobart M-Sport Ford team leave the third closest WRC finish ever with a healthy tally of 18 manufacturer points and now lie only one point behind rivals, the Citroen Junior Team.
Other Rally News:
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team had an excellent final day as Jari Matti Latvala won Rally New Zealand after Petter Solberg was forced to retire from the final stage after crashing into a telegraph pole. Team-mate, and fellow Finn, Mikko Hirvonen finished in fourth position overall.
The Citroen Rally Team leave the fifth round of the WRC with Sebastien Ogier in second position and Sebastien Loeb
Munchi's Ford World Rally Team struggled with handling issues throughout the three-day event but the Argentinean rally champions still managed to move from eleventh position up to ninth after the final day.
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
"It was an unbelievable rally and I'm pleased with my overall result. The rain overnight didn't really have any impact on today's stages. Towards the end everyone was pushing really hard and there was a big battle going on but I just took it easy. I didn't have anyone to catch at that point and I was just concentrating on finishing. But we had a lot of clean runs and it's been my best result out in New Zealand - it was a good rally for me."
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
"Last time I was in New Zealand I produced seven fastest stage times and it is usually a good rally for me -- it has been quite frustrating. I had a lot of problems with the car this weekend, I don't know what was wrong. I managed to push to the end though so I am pleased to have finished. Hopefully everything will be sorted for when I go to Portugal next month and I will be able to finish with some good times."
Stobart M-Sport Ford Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"This has been one of Matthew's best performances in terms of pace. He produced some very good split times and has made a big step in terms of his speed during this year's Rally New Zealand. Henning was unlucky in this round and really struggled with the set-up of his car but he will hopefully be back producing quick stage times when the Stobart [M-Sport Ford World Rally Team] go to Portugal at the end of the month."