Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson fought back to the fringes of the podium at Brother Rally New Zealand after a difficult opening leg for Ford World Rally Team today. They lie fourth in a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car after a determined drive this afternoon helped offset a tough morning, when a wrong tyre selection dropped them down the leaderboard.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miika Anttila, who were fastest in qualifying yesterday, led initially in their Fiesta RS WRC. They were fighting hard in third until the penultimate speed test when they went off the road into a fence and lost more than four minutes. They lie ninth.
This seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship, and the 500th fixture in the history of the series, began last night on the shortest day of New Zealand’s winter when Auckland hosted the start.
The action began in earnest today when competitors journeyed south-west for two identical loops of four speed tests overlooking the stunning Tasman Sea coastline near Raglan. The 209.60km of competition covered some of New Zealand’s finest rallying roads, offering a mix of flowing cambered sections and twisty, technical tracks in the coastal rain forests.
The leg contained more than half the rally’s competitive distance and with just a 15-minute service, during which teams could only make repairs with spare parts carried in the rally cars, avoiding mechanical problems was essential. Cool temperatures and showers this morning gave way to drier conditions this afternoon.
The differing strategies regarding start position and tyre selection provided one of the major talking points. Solberg opted to start second of the leading drivers and the team opted to fit Michelin’s hard compound tyres to his Fiesta RS WRC for the opening loop. However, the roads were wetter than expected and 37-year-old Solberg dropped 90sec to lie seventh.
With more suitable soft compound tyres fitted for the afternoon, Solberg stepped up the pace and twice set second fastest times during the repeat pass over the stages. He ended the day just 8.3sec from third place.
“It could have been a better morning!” he said. “We made a decision as a team to choose hard tyres. We had to estimate how the conditions would be as the morning progressed, and we made a mistake. We had a good run this afternoon, trying to climb the leaderboard sufficiently to be close to the podium tonight.
“It will be tough to take time out of the guys ahead, although we have more of our soft compound tyre allocation remaining than they do. Hopefully it will rain tomorrow and Sunday so that we can make that count. But I will continue to push and try to climb back into the fight again,” added Solberg.
Latvala took a different strategy, the 27-year-old Finn opting to start last of the leading drivers, with the aim of capitalising on roads swept clear of slippery gravel by those ahead. Using soft compound tyres, Latvala was fastest on the opening stage and was never outside the top three as he reached the service break in Raglan in third. However, his hopes suffered a setback two-thirds of the way through the penultimate stage.
“I spun at a slow second gear corner,” he explained. “I saw that some drivers had taken a big cut so I tried to do the same. The front right of the car touched a hole and the car spun through 180 degrees. I was quickly back on the throttle but the car hit a fence and some wire wrapped itself around the wheel. The car wouldn’t move. I had to wait until a farmer came with some cutters to free the wire.
“I’m extremely disappointed. It feels as if nothing is working for me this year. I wasn’t pushing flat out, just driving at a rhythm with which I felt comfortable. I’ll start afresh tomorrow, with the aim of climbing back into the top six,” he added.
Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson admitted it ‘wasn’t the best of days’. “We made a team decision regarding Petter’s tyres this morning that turned out to be wrong, and paid the price. Jari-Matti was in the battle for the lead but he lost his victory chance when he cut a corner and went through a fence. We’ll try to keep the pressure on over the last two days and see what twists and turns there might be,” he said.
News from other Ford teams
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet lie third in a Fiesta RS WRC, with team-mates Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk just 16sec behind in fifth. Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino are 10th, despite a spin on the morning’s final stage. Block eased ahead of Brazil World Rally Team’s Manfred Stohl / Ilka Minor, who lost time this afternoon with a damaged right rear driveshaft. Jari Ketomaa / Mika Stenberg had a troubled morning after hitting a bank and puncturing a tyre in the opening stage, going off the road on the next test and stopping to change a puncture in stage 3. However, they recovered to hold 14th.
The second day takes competitors north of Auckland into the Northland region for tests in the Whangarei and Kaipara districts. After restarting at 07.10, drivers tackle three stages before the respite of a 15-minute service in Whangarei. Four more tests follow before they return to Auckland for the final overnight halt at 19.48 after 143.01km of competition.
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