VIDEO: WRC Fiestas Ready For Close Combat
Ford World Rally Team heads to Brother Rally New Zealand (21-24 June) this week with both drivers able to draw on past experience of how intense the fight for victory there can be. Both Jari-Matti Latvala and team-mate Petter Solberg have enjoyed the spoils of victory by just a handful of seconds after dramatic battles which were only decided in the final kilometres.
Latvala and Miikka Anttila won the most recent fixture there in 2010, emerging from the last speed test with a slender 2.4sec advantage after a thrilling four-car showdown. It is the fourth-closest finish in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Six years earlier Solberg won by just 5.9sec following a similarly action-packed rally. Fittingly, both drivers clinched victory in the classic Whaanga Coast special stage, one of the sport’s iconic and most challenging venues.
Rally New Zealand, round seven of the 13-event WRC, is the last outing before a six-week break and the 500th championship encounter since the series began in 1973. Drivers regard the flowing gravel roads as among the best in the world and both 27-year-old Latvala and 37-year-old Solberg, partnered by Chris Patterson, list the event as one of their favourites.
The cambered roads around the North Island Maori-stronghold of Auckland are as smooth as a billiard table and positively entice drivers to attack. They wind through lush, green countryside and the scenery is as stunning as the roads, the picture postcard views over the Tasman Sea from Whaanga Coast being some of the finest of the championship.
Late June is the middle of winter in the Land of the Long White Cloud and rain will be a constant threat. Car reliability will be crucial, as the opening two legs offer just a 15-minute remote service midway through, in which teams can make repairs using only parts carried in the cars. This will be particularly true in the first leg which, at 209.60km, contains more than half the competitive distance.
“The first day will be tough because the stages are long and there is just one short service zone to make repairs if we have problems,” said Latvala. “We will have limited access to spare parts, so it’s vital to avoid mechanical issues. The famous Whaanga Coast stage will be run twice in the leg and it’s one of the most challenging tests in the championship. There are always dramas on those roads.
“It was the final stage in 2010 and to come out of there and find I had won the rally was a great, great moment after such a hard battle. Four of us had the chance to win but the stage caught out the three others. It is one of the sport’s great challenges.
“The roads are used daily by the public so they have a smooth, hard surface with a lot of camber. As you cross the camber through the flowing corners, it feels as though the car is dancing. It’s a great feeling and it’s hard not to attack over such wonderful stages. Because it’s mid-winter, the risk of rain is higher and the roads may not be quite as smooth as we have been used to,” added Latvala.
Solberg, too, has great respect for Whaanga Coast. “It’s a special place. It’s incredibly twisty and hugely technical towards the finish and a stage where the drivers come to the fore. It’s tricky, but a driver can really make a difference with a good performance through there,” said the Norwegian.
“It’s winter in New Zealand so there’s a good chance the temperatures will be low and rain is likely. That will make it hard to generate heat into the hard compound tyres, which will be our primary option for the rally. It’s the same for everyone and there’s nothing we can do about it, but the other side of the coin is that the Fiesta RS WRC works well with hard compound rubber.
“Looking back to the previous round in Greece, I knew the risks when I raised my pace by half a per cent on the final day and I made a mistake that was costly. But I could sense victory then. I want to win and I’m confident that victory will come very soon. New Zealand would be a great place for it to happen,” he added.
* Michelin’s Latitude Cross gravel tyres will be used by the Ford drivers and 35 of these will be available in hard compound. New-for-2012 regulations mean drivers will also have 10 soft compound tyres available if conditions are wet and muddy. However, only 35 units can be used in total during qualifying and the rally itself. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Five privately-run Fiesta RS WRCs are entered. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet are nominated by M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino will make their second WRC start of the season while Brazil World Rally Team will be present, but with team manager Manfred Stohl / Tina-Maria Monego making a one-off appearance. It will be Stohl’s first WRC outing since December 2007. The Fiesta RS WRC entries are completed by Finns Jari Ketomaa / Mika Stenberg.
* Latvala warmed up for the rally by winning the historic class in the POP Pankki SM-Ralli last Saturday. Latvala and co-driver Asko Sairanen took the class honours by more than five minutes in a Ford Escort RS Mk2 on the one-day event based at Lapua in western Finland.
The route returns to areas familiar to the drivers, but is centred around a new service park at the recently completed Wynyard Quarter on Auckland’s waterfront. After Thursday evening’s start ceremony, drivers journey south-west the following day to the Tasman Sea coastline for tests near Raglan, including two passes through Whaanga Coast. Raglan hosts a remote service midway through the leg. The second day heads to the Northland region for stages in the Whangarei and Kaipara districts, with another remote service in Whangarei itself. The final day is just north of Auckland, covering roads not used since the 1990s. It includes two passes over a short asphalt test at the city’s War Memorial Museum, as well as the final Power Stage, which offers bonus points to the fastest three drivers. Drivers face 22 stages covering 413.94km in a route of 1656.38km.