Round eleven of the FIA World Rally Championship takes teams and crews to Repco Rally New Zealand for what is arguably the most eagerly-anticipated event on the 2022 calendar – and one team could already have a march on its rivals.
Famous for its table top smooth roads that weave their way through the stunning North Island countryside, this is the first time that all – bar one – of the sport’s top names will get to experience the Auckland-based rally. And to whet their appetite, classic tests including the breath-taking ‘Whaanga Coast’ is on the itinerary for an event that gets underway on Thursday evening with a Super Special in Pukekawa Auckland Domain Park, not far from the watefront service area.
Sebastien Ogier is the only current Rally1 driver to have made the trip to the Southern Hemisphere country before. He came close to scoring his maiden World Rally Championship victory there back in 2010, only to be denied three corners from the finish when he spun his Citroen C4 WRC and handed top spot to Jari-Matti Latvala – his boss and the current Team Principal at Toyota Gazoo Racing.
New Zealand is the first of three consecutive events the 8-time champion will contest in the GR Yaris Rally1 car, with Spain and Japan being the other two. The Frenchman’s last appearance in the competition was a fourh-place finish at Safari Rally Kenya alongside Benjamin Veillas.
“After a nice break, it’s exciting to be getting back in my GR Yaris for these three events to end the season,” said Ogier. “Rally New Zealand is one of the rallies I really wanted to do this year. I was there once before in 2010 and I have mostly good memories; it was a very close fight until the final corners.
“At the time, it was hard to take but thankfully I could score my first WRC win just a few weeks later [in Portugal]. The rally itself is beautiful with some of the best roads in the world. After this break it won’t be easy to get back in the rhythm right away, but like always I will try to compete for the victory and help the team to the best possible result.”
And it is that previous experience of the stages that could prove crucial, especially for team-mate Kalle Rovanpera who has been scouring the internet up until now to try and build a better picture of what lies in store. Under current World Rally Championship rules, pre-event tests are only allowed to be held in Europe to help cap costs and create a more level playing field for Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport Ford.
“It will be really interesting to go to Rally New Zealand,” says the current championship leader, whose red-hot form cooled on the last two rallies in Belgium and Greece. “I have only heard good things about the country and the rally and how nice the roads are. To prepare we have been watching whatever videos we can to get an overview of how the stages are and to understand what we might need from the car before we get there.
“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. Again, we will be opening the road in New Zealand but hopefully we can have good speed, enjoy the event and finish with a good result,” he added.
Like Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans in the third GR Yaris Rally1 car does not start round eleven completely blind, and anticipates Ogier and Latvala will be happy to share what information they have in the team meetings. “It’s going to be exciting to finally have the chance to compete in New Zealand for the first time. I’ve heard many great things about the event and especially about the roads and how rewarding they are to drive,” said the Welshman. “So if what everybody says is true, then I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of fun there and hopefully we can have a good rally. “
“It’s never easy to prepare for a new event like this, particularly because we’re not able to test outside of Europe, but within the team we do at least have some previous experience from New Zealand, not least from Jari-Matti and Seb. We’ve also been having a look through the archives for old videos of the stages just to get an idea of what we’re likely to face.”