Just one week after competition in Germany, the Subaru World Rally Team heads for the gravel roads of Repco Rally New Zealand, the eleventh round of the World Rally Championship, for an event marked by milestones both past and present.
The rally marks the 15th anniversary of Subaru’s first World Rally win, on the 1993 New Zealand Rally, at the hands of Colin McRae in what was the last rally for the Subaru Legacy. The win was pivotal in the introduction of the iconic Impreza to the World Rallying scene, effectively heralding the new era for the team. It was also to be the first of three wins for Colin in New Zealand, putting him in the elite group of only three drivers to have ever claimed a hat-trick of victories on the event.
Now, 15 years on, the event also marks the 200th World Rally start for the Subaru Impreza. Although now in its latest iteration, the Impreza’s heritage within the WRC is unquestionable and Subaru’s road-going iterations carry more WRC lineage than any other marque.
The rally weekend also coincides with the McRae Gathering, a World Record-challenging convoy of more than 1000 Subaru road cars that starts from SWRT’s headquarters in the UK. A fitting tribute as Rally New Zealand is an event very significant to Subaru’s rally history and to the memory of the Great Scot.
The event itself consists of fast and flowing gravel roads that tear through the lush landscape of the country’s North Island. Located 130km from the city of Auckland, the rally is again based in the Mystery Creek Events Centre, within which the service park is sheltered indoors. Sixteen stages take crews through 354.58 kilometres of competition after a ceremonial start on Thursday night in the nearby city of Hamilton. The Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyre will be used in hard compound guise and with the low ambient temperatures conditions won’t be dissimilar to those seen on Rally Argentina at the end of March this season.
Close to the hearts of Subaru fans the world over will also be stage seven of the event, run on Saturday morning. The Possum stage was so-called to honour New Zealand’s rallying hero Possum Bourne, as it runs through the region of Franklin from which Possum came. He enjoyed a longer relationship with Subaru in rallying than any other driver. Starting in 1983 with a win on Rally New Zealand aboard a Subaru RX Coupe, he received factory support for the Asia-Pacific Championship and claimed a record seven consecutive Australian Championship titles aboard an Impreza.
Approaching the country’s spring season, temperatures are expected to be between 10-15 degrees Celsius. Recent weather in the region has brought a deluge, swamping many of the farms and water-logging many of the routes. This has led to the splitting in two of the 43.98km Waitomo stage, which was the longest of the rally, due to an impassable 80 metre section at the mid-point. The road section between SS1 and SS13 is also currently impassable due to water, though this is expected to subside before the event.
A spectator stage around the Mystery Creek service park runs three times during the weekend, the third time as the final stage of the rally, bringing the competition to a conclusion on Sunday. The Eye in the Sky brings live action to Sky Sports 1 and 3 throughout the weekend, starting at 1700hrs on Friday 29 August.
Last year’s running led to the closest finish in the history of the WRC, with the first and second placed crews separated by only 0.3 seconds after three days of flat-out competition.
The Subaru World Rally Team has entered two Impreza WRC2008s for Repco Rally New Zealand. Petter Solberg and Phil Mills will drive number five, and team-mates Chris Atkinson and Stéphane Prévot number six.
Solberg and Mills have competed in New Zealand six times before, every year since 2002. They have achieved three podium finishes in this time, including a win in 2004. Atkinson has competed here three times before, but only last year alongside Prévot, when the pair finished fourth overall.
David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal: “I’ve got some great memories of Rally New Zealand. It’s an event that is historically very significant for the team, producing our first ever WRC win. More recently we’ve had a busy few weeks of testing and rallies, and as a result our drivers are feeling increasingly more confident with the new car.”
Paul Howarth, Subaru World Rally Team operations director: “The cambered roads we see in New Zealand are pretty unique to this rally, and getting them right is crucial to setting good times. The drivers must get their car to flow from corner to corner using the camber to their advantage, and they must build a good rhythm from the start otherwise the time will just fall away. It’s also important to have maximum confidence and commitment to slingshot the car along the fast roads.”
Petter Solberg: “I like New Zealand as it is fast and flowing, and you really have to have the confidence to commit to be quick. At the end of Germany I was feeling really good, it was a definite step forward. But now we are back to gravel so it’s totally different, so we work on what we had in Finland and see where we go from there. I hope we can keep the same feeling from Germany and then I think we’ll be quite strong.”
Chris Atkinson: “I’m really looking forward to New Zealand but we need to find a little more speed if we’re going to compete with the likes of Seb, Mikko and Jari-Matti. We have some good ideas from Finland, so if everything works out, I think we could be strong there. As with last year it’s the closest to my home rally this season so I’m looking forward to getting there, meeting all the guys who are coming over from home, and closing the gap to those in front.”
Between the rallies
Chris, Phil and Stéphane all travelled home from Germany on the Sunday night to spend a few precious days at home in the week between Germany and New Zealand. Petter travelled home to Monaco with wife Pernilla on the Monday, before he, Phil and Stéphane flew to Auckland just two days later on Wednesday. Chris followed a day later, spending a night at home in Australia on the way.
Everyone at SWRT congratulates Stéphane and his partner upon the birth of their daughter Zoë, on Monday 11 August.