The FIA World Rally Championship goes “down under” this week as Repco Rally New Zealand, Sept.29-Oct. 2, returns to the series for the first time in a decade.
Fast, flowing gravel roads with cambered turns await the crews at the 2022 WRC’s 11th round as the rally traverses the forests and picture postcard coastline of the North Island.
Few of the WRC’s frontline stars have previously contested the Auckland-based event which brings a unique challenge to the 13-round championship. Among those making their New Zealand debuts is Toyota Gazoo Racing’s WRC points leader, Kalle Rovanpera.
Poor results on recent rallies have seen Rovanpera’s championship-leading margin reduced to 53 points over Hyundai’s charging Ott Tanak. The Finn celebrates his 22nd birthday this Saturday (Oct. 1) and, with a maximum of 90 points available from the three remaining rallies, remains firmly on course to become the WRC’s youngest ever champion.
A birthday isn’t the only thing Rovanpera might be celebrating this weekend, either. He could seal the drivers’ championship crown on Sunday afternoon should he outscore Tanak by eight points, or just seven points if he wins the rally.
“It will be really interesting to go to Rally New Zealand,” said Rovanpera “I have only heard good things about the country and the rally and how nice the roads are.
“Recent rallies have not been ideal for us, but we know what we need to improve and we are working hard to have more pace and be more comfortable. Hopefully we can have good speed, enjoy the event and finish with a good result.”
Rovanpera is joined in Toyota’s four-car GR Yaris Rally1 attack by Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta, as well as eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier, below, who resumes his part-time campaign with the Japanese manufacturer on his first outing since Kenya in June.
With three wins and two other podiums in the last six events, Tanak is hoping for another victory to keep his title hopes alive Teamed up with Thierry Neuville and Oliver Solberg in a trio of hybrid-powered i20 N Rally1 cars, the Estonian says that New Zealand’s fabled stages are a dream to drive on.
“The roads seem as if they were made for rallying,” he enthused. “Hopefully we can get 100 percent from the car and achieve a strong result.”
On the pre-rally Shakedown, Rovanpera bested Tanak by a scant 0.2s over the 2.2-mile test stage, with Neuville and Solberg wedged in between them, just 0.1s off the Toyota driver’s benchmark time. In the fifth spot, Ogier was only 0.3s behind Tanak, adding to the prospects of a super-close contest ahead.
Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith lead M-Sport Ford’s charge, with Italian privateer Lorenzo Bertelli also fielding a Puma Rally1. Adrien Fourmaux was also due to drive for the British-based squad, but withdrew his entry last week.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Skoda Fabia Evo driver Kajetan Kajetanowicz starts the fifth of his seven points-counting events hoping to narrow his 33-point gap to current championship leader Andreas Mikkelsen.
With Mikkelsen having already completed his seven events, a strong run by Pole Kajetanowicz will put him in a great position to land his first title. But first he must overcome some strong local opposition from former WRC regular Hayden Paddon (Hyundai i20N Rally2) and Ben Hunt (Skoda), as well as Aussie Harry Bates (Skoda).
And watch out, too, for another Kiwi, Shane van Gisbergen, who swaps his Australian Supercars Championship Holden Commodore for a WRC2 Skoda. Van Gisbergen was third fastest among the WRC2 entries on the pre-rally Shakedown, behind only Paddon and Bates, and could be the weekend’s surprise package.
The rally kicks off 6pm NZST on Thursday evening (1am ET Thursday/10pm PT Wednesday for Stateside fans) with a 0.9-mile super special stage within host city Auckland’s downtown Pukekawa Auckland Domain park.
Friday’s monster 98.52-mile leg features seven classic stages in the Whaanga Coast and on Waikato region roads near Te Akau, followed by six stages and 54.85 competitive miles north of Auckland for Saturday’s leg.
Sunday’s finale comprises a new stage at Whitford Forest Te Maraunga Waiho (5.44 miles) and the purpose-built Jack’s Ridge (3.99 miles). Both are driven twice, with the second run of Jack’s Ridge forming the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
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