Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Ishani Aziz
After a decade absence, one of the World Rally Championship’s proper classic events makes its reappearance this weekend, and it’s none other than Rally New Zealand. The southernmost event of the year first made its debut at the world stage in 1977. With its sweeping, cambered and most importantly, fast, gravel stages, it was a true driver’s rally. With Marcus Grönholm leading the charts with five victories, ahead of Carlos Sainz Sr. with four, the terrain has certainly seen its fair share of talent. Let’s take a look at what the return of the Kiwi track holds…
One champion that hasn’t triumphed there yet is Sebastien Ogier, although he came close in 2010, only to spin in the final stage and lose the win to Jari-Matti Latvala, his current team boss. The Frenchman is looking to turn the tide this weekend, returning for the final three rallies. His task won’t be easy however, as there are potentially four drivers who also have a realistic chance of victory. Kalle Rovanperähas seen his championship lead evaporate in the last two rallies and will definitely be looking to change his fortunes if he’s to secure his first title, a feat he can achieve this weekend. Ott Tänak felt he should have been prioritized in Greece, but even with a second place he finds himself 53 points behind Kalle and will do everything to stop him winning in New Zealand.
Teammate Thierry Neuville finally took his first win in ten months, so his aim will be to build up some momentum for the end of the season. Hyundai have made big efforts to make its unreliable i20 competitive and it’s finally paying off, with three wins in a row, trailing Toyota by 63 points in the title race as a result. Unlike Neuville, Elfyn Evans left Greece frustrated knowing a podium was snatched from his hands. The Welshman hasn’t won for almost a year and with second place in the standings still up for grabs, he almost certainly won’t hold back.
All these drivers will hope to stand on the top step come Sunday afternoon- or morning for a big chunk of you reading- but it won’t be easy, as New Zealand has seen some really close finishes over the years. We've already mentioned the 2010 installment, but two years earlier the roles were reversed, with both the Fords of Latvala and Mikko Hirvoen crashing out on the final stage, handing the win to the Citroens. 2007's rally was again decided on the last stage, with the winning margin being a mere 0.3 seconds. And who can forget the epic four car brawl for second place between the Fords and the Peugeots in 2001.
As for the podium outsiders, the ever consistent Takamoto Katsuta, who’s yet to finish an event outside the top eight, is a good bet, along with M-Sport’s Craig Breen, who finally finished in the top five for the first time since June and is hopeful of carrying some momentum heading to the final stretch of the season. The returning Oliver Solberg recorded his best ever finish last time he raced at Belgium, so he’s another one looking to do well in the twisty New Zealand roads, Finally, Gus Greensmith, who has been in the shadow of nearly all his teammates throughout the year, has shown he can be quick and most important of all, consistent, a trait that’ll come in handy this weekend.
None of M-Sport’s three Frenchmen are making an appearance in New Zealand, including Adrien Fourmaux, who’s entry has been withdrawn, but Lorenzo Bertelli’s name can be seen on the entry list. The Italian is set to compete in a WRC event for the first time in five years, driving a Ford Puma Rally1 car.