Rally New Zealand Preview

After another long break, the WRC begins again on the other side of the world with the Rally New Zealand. This rally begins a more hectic schedule for the teams, with less time between events to regroup.

There are quite a few storylines that have developed since the Rally Mexico, and this rally should set the tone of the championship for the rest of the season. First, both Ford and Citroen will debut the next evolutions of their world rally cars. The last time Ford modified the Focus, it was incredibly quick, but beset with reliability issues. Francois Duval and Markko Martin looked good last month in Mexico, but they were blessed with a relatively high attrition rate for the rally. But the Focus didn’t impress during shakedown, with Martin taking 10th best, coming in behind the Lancer of Kristan Sohlberg. Citroen has been guarded about the new Xsara, since it was redesigned to take advantage of new rules to permit a lighter car body. This could mean a faster Xsara, but it could also mean a less reliable car as well. Time will tell.

Peugeot’s management admitted that perhaps they pushed the new 307 into the competitve arena a little too quickly. The car has had its share of reliability issues so far this year, even with Marcus Gronholm holding third overall in the championship.

The Big Three have all been scrambling after the debut of the latest Subaru Impreza last month in Mexico. Petter Solberg set over half of the scratch times, and would have won the rally by over two minutes if not for a penalty thanks to a dead battery. Solberg will be a marked man for the event, and he can win this event. Suddenly, after being the most under-powered car in the championship, the Impreza is suddenly the car to beat.

Another bit of news heading into the weekend is the unpredictability of the weather and the potential for disasterous tyre choices by the factory teams. Remember, thanks to new rules, the teams had to choose tyres for event over a month ago, and they were limited by the choices they could make. The current forecast looks a bit rainy, and this could push the advantage further into Subaru’s court, especially with new Pirelli rubber. Michelins have never been good wet weather tyres, and the other teams are nervous about the choices they were forced to make.

On to my guesses….

Like I said, this is Solberg’s rally to lose. The Impreza has one rally plus additional six weeks of testing under its belt, so the car should be ready and willing to deliver. Expect Mikko Hirvonen to have a good showing too — he should finish somewhere in the points, especially if Ford or Citroen run into problems.

Markko Martin and Sebastien Loeb have the potential to be quick as well, though they could be limited by their vehicles and their tyre choices. The biggest question mark hangs over Peugeot. Will the 307 be up for the task? Gronholm and Harri Rovanpera took the top two spots during the shakedown, but, what does that matter? If the 307 remains reliable, one of them could end up on the podium — though more and likely that will be Gronholm. Rovanpera struggled in Mexico despite being the only driver with racing experience there.

Keep an eye on the Mitsubishi Lancers of Gilles Panizzi and Kristian Sohlberg. They won’t be fighting for a podium spot, but the Lancer has been progressing nicely. It’s not impossible for both cars to finish in the points, especially if other factory cars run into problems.

My Top Eight
1. Petter Solberg
2. Marcus Gronholm
3. Carlos Sainz
4. Sebastien Loeb
5. Markko Martin
6. Mikko Hirvonen
7. Gilles Panizzi
8. Harri Rovanpera