BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team journeys to New Zealand for the third rally in just five weekends intent on putting its world title challenge back on track. The world champion dropped to second in both the manufacturers' and drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship on Germany's asphalt roads earlier this month and is keen to make amends on the team's more favoured gravel surface.
The flowing roads of Rally New Zealand (28 - 31 August) offer the perfect opportunity for the all-Finnish line-up of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and colleagues Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila to fight back in their Focus RS World Rally Cars. Fast, smooth as a billiard table and cambered, the North Island roads gently wind through lush, green countryside and are similar to Finland. They are widely regarded as the most enjoyable of the season and invite drivers to attack.
New Zealand has endured a very wet winter, which has brought about late changes to the route. While more rain would soften the roads further, the wet spell should ensure there will be no loose gravel on the surface, offering better grip for the early starters - Hirvonen will be second in the start order.
Twenty-eight-year-old Hirvonen lies just four points from the lead in the drivers' standings after top spot changed hands for the sixth time this season in the thrilling title duel between the Ford driver and Sébastien Loeb. This will be his fifth start in New Zealand, round 11 of the 15-event series, his best result coming in 2006 when he finished second.
"The roads in New Zealand have a good rhythm to them and they are so smooth that there's no need to worry about damaging the car on rocks," said Hirvonen. "The cambered corners encourage attacking driving but it's important not to position the car on the wrong side of the camber coming into a corner. If that happens then the car ends up sliding wide or perhaps not even making it round at all.
"If the temperatures are cool and it is wet then hard compound tyres will be far from easy. There is no choice in the matter. We will all have to use that compound because those are the rules but I will need to be very careful because it will be hard to get heat into the tyres in those temperatures. It could be like the first stage in Argentina where I took risks in similar conditions and was able to make a very fast time - the alternative is that the risks don't work and the car goes off the road.
"The engine improvements on the new car that we debuted in Germany have made a difference. The tight regulations mean it's not possible to make big steps forward but the engine response has definitely improved. Everything happens a little faster than it did so I hope that will benefit us in New Zealand also. It's important to win rallies for our title challenges but if I can't do that then I have to score as many points as possible," added Hirvonen.
Latvala's best result from his three starts came last year when the 23-year-old finished fifth. "This is a rally that I enjoy and after my disappointment in Germany earlier this month it will help to go to a rally that I like and feel comfortable with. I prefer to go here now than a tough, rocky rally like the Acropolis in Greece for example," he said.
"The countryside is beautiful and the roads are great. The surface is a mix of sand and very smooth gravel which is hard packed so the conditions are good and the cambered roads allow more speed to be carried through the bends. There has been a lot of rain there so an early start position is a benefit. Wet roads mean there will be no loose gravel on top and I should be through the tests before the mud comes to the surface and makes it really slippery for those further down the start order," he added.
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