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GP Week : Issue 159
36 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: Once again the red and white cars were unbeatable, the blue oval team went home in tears. Sebastien Loeb beat his Citroen Total teammate Mikko Hirvonen, who had to admit that the world champion was just too consistent in his stage times to be challenged but who happily was back on form again. Both the Ford drivers played long odds, Jari-Matti Latvala with a bold and unconvincing starting order choice, while eventual third-placed Petter Solberg with a tyre choice which conceivably might have worked but proved unnecessary. Latvala then spun off the road and lost time while spectators untangled his car from fencing wire, and finished seventh, compounding another weekend of misery. Citroen bosses let Loeb and Hirvonen fight each other on the stages for a fair amount of time before eventually giving stay put orders after Day 2. At a time when Ford continue to fight for their continued presence on the WRC scene and just need a light at the end of their tunnel, it went wrong once again. In the increasingly complicated world of the WRC due to the new starting order selection system and the new limited access to alternative tyre compounds, it was noticeable that Citroen chose safer and Ford chose riskier options, and it showed in the final results. Ford still have the right level of speed (Latvala made fastest time in Qualifying, Latvala and Solberg were 1-2 in the Power stage) but this was not enough. Something else is missing in their title quest. Until the pressure was off on the final day when stay-put orders were given, it had again been a four-car race. After Latvala’s off road problem, the order had been Loeb-Hirvonen-Solberg for over two days. Latvala had been fastest on the first stage, Hirvonen led for most of the very long Day 1, using too many of his valuable soft tyres, while Loeb managed his speed with his tyre opportunities to better effect. The weather was typical for New Zealand, vastly changeable within minutes, bad news for the Michelin teams who soon ran out of the preferred soft compound tyres. Tyre decisions were critical also on Day 2, and by Day 3 it was a matter of tyre survival, as competitors struggled in wet conditions to manage their depleted tyre availability. Behind the leaders there was a great fight for fourth place between Ford drivers Evgeniy Novikov and Ott Tanak, and the Citroen driver Thierry Neuville. Novikov successfully held his nerve and his fourth place for two whole days. Neuville showed an impressive turn of speed for a driver new to this event, but Tanak crashed with two stages to go, the only World Rally Car not to finish or even not to complete every stage. With the movement to increase the endurance factor with extended distances to be covered on the same tyres and this time over 200km to be covered between full service, the reliability of the WRC cars here was impressive. Prodrive sent Dani Sordo to New Zealand hoping to demonstrate the speed of the new version 01B Mini JCW WRC car on gravel roads, but it went wrong. The only impressive result for Sordo on his way to sixth place overall were the two fastest times on the short publicity tarmac stage on the final day, not exactly what they had in mind! In any event where the WRC Mini Portugal team used the old model 01A cars, Armindo Araujo finished a reliable eighth, two places behind Sordo, while Paulo Nobre completed the route of a WRC event for the first time since Monte Carlo. Where goes NZ in the WRC world in the future? Who knows, but for the drivers this event was tops: “I really enjoyed myself,” said the often taciturn Loeb. “It is really an incredible feeling to be here. You need to be flat out all the time so it is really great. The most difficult time was when we had to use the hard tyres in the wet, that was difficult.” The future of the WRC in New Zealand is now in the hands of the politicians of the sport. Citroen Total increased their lead in the Makes’ series to 93 points over Ford while in the Drivers’ series Sebastien Loeb’s lead is 38 points from his teammate Mikko Hirvonen. RALLY >>> NEW ZEALAND Jari-Matti challenged until his Day 1 crash (left); Novikov took 'best of the rest' fourth place (right)