The FIA World Rally Championship returns with considerable enthusiasm for Repco Rally New Zealand starting with the ceremonial opening and super special stage at Pukekawa Auckland Domain.
Leading drivers today spoke glowingly of the famed flowing gravel roads of New Zealand following two and a half days of reconnaissance. The opening day on Friday is a significant test for all drivers with 159km of competitive stages distance including a double run on the world-famous Whaanga Coast.
Eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier, who has returned part-time to the WRC, always ear-marked a start in New Zealand.
“I’ve been here only once but I think when you compete here once, you definitely want to come back. It’s beautiful roads to drive in a world rally car. After 10 years it remains beautiful, so I think the decision to come here is definitely a good one and now I want to enjoy the weekend,” said Ogier.
There will be interest in championship leader Kalle Rovanperä who can wrap up the title with victory by more than eight points in New Zealand, to become the sport’s youngest champion and better his father Harri, who finished on the podium twice in New Zealand.
“The stages are really nice. I think if you really get everything right, you will enjoy them,” said Rovanperä, who believes his biggest test will come on the lengthy first day.
“I will be opening the road, it’s a really long day, lots of loose gravel on some stages on some parts, so for sure I think it’s not going to be easy to be first car there and we need to try to focus on Friday to make a good job.”
The 21-year-old Finn will be joined by Toyota GR Yaris teammates Elfyn Evans, in third place in the championship, Takamoto Katsuta and the return of Ogier.
It will be Ogier’s second time competing in New Zealand after the Frenchman was runner-up in 2010 after he spun just 3km from the final of the final stage.
Hyundai Motorsport i20 N team is led by current second placed Ott Tänak and fourth placed Thierry Neuville, and joined by the Category’s youngest driver, 20-year-old Oliver Solberg, whose father Petter won the event back in 2004.
The M-Sport Ford has four Ford Pumas in action with Craig Breen, Gus Greensmith, the returning Adrien Fourmaux with Italian privateer Lorenzo Granai making his WRC1 debut.
There is much interest in the WRC2 category, led by Kiwi star Hayden Paddon in a Hyundai i20 N Rally2. Others New Zealanders in this class include two-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen, realising a life-long ambition, along with two national rally champions in New Zealand’s Ben Hunt and Australia’s Harry Bates.
“I’m actually just looking forward to being back in the car tomorrow and actually just mallow out – put the helmet on, put the phone away and forget about everything else and just relax and enjoy some of these awesome stages,” said Paddon.
It is more of a treat for van Gisbergen, who will head back to Australia next week to defend his Supercars title at Bathurst next weekend.
“It is pretty cool to be here and have the car on show. It is special to be in the line-up with these guys and all the WRC1 cars as well. It is pretty surreal,” said van Gisbergen.
“I have to focus on the driving. I still have a lot to learn. The notes – you can’t write enough. I don’t know what I need to process. Whaanga Coast – I have never done it before and was just taking it in on the first pass.
“I am just trying to enjoy it all.”
There are 11 cars in the RC1 class and 18 in RC2, while there are a full field competing in the New Zealand Rally Championship.
Teams have undertaken three days of official reconnaissance, with a shakedown test on Thursday ahead of the official opening and Super Special Stage.
Day one proper is in Raglan and Te Akau regions, with day two in the Nor-West and Hibiscus Coast region
Day three of the Repco Rally New Zealand will be on roads in North West Auckland and Hibiscus Coast, with three special stages repeated on Saturday 1 October.
On the back of significant ticket sales, organisers advise fans to purchase general admission tickets for the Jack’s Ridge stages, with park and ride with admission at $59.