After a ten-year absence, the Rally New Zealand returns to the World Rally Championship this weekend (September 29-October 2), and it does so in style. This iconic race has been one of the most anticipated in this year’s calendar. With its incomparable natural setting, this is considered the be the most beautiful and picturesque of all rallies and a personal favourite for many of the crews.
Yet, and despite its one-of-a-kind forests, tracks and beautiful farmland, its fast gravel roads will pose an extreme challenge to drivers. Its level of difficulty has in fact resulted in some of the most memorable moments in the history of the speciality.
The Rally New Zealand will have its headquarters in the city of Auckland and its route will extend for a total of 279,80 divided into 17 specials. With just three races left in the calendar, Kalle Rovanperä (Toyota) will have a new opportunity to seal the crown this weekend.
The Flying Finn currently dominates the standings with 53 points more than Ott Tänak (Hyundai). He would only need to outscore the Estonian by eight points, or just seven if he wins the rally.
Incidentally, if the Scandinavian leader was to conquer the title this weekend, this would coincide with the 20-year anniversary of the coronation of his compatriot Marcus Grönholm in this very same scenario. But winning is not going to be so straightforward for the 21-year-old driver from Jyväskylä.
Kalle hasn’t had a win since mid-July in Estonia and has since been consistently outperformed by the members of a reborn Hyundai team, winners of the last three rounds. The result has been the relinquishing of a good chunk of his advantage to Tänak, who has steadily closed in on him in the standings. First and foremost, Rovanperä must concentrate on reversing this trend.
Teaming up with him will be Elfyn Evans and Sebastien Ogier. One year on from his extraordinary victory in Finland, the Welshman will be hoping to climb to the top of the podium once again, a result that has narrowly escaped him several times this year.
Meanwhile, the eighth-time French champion will return to action for his fourth rally of the year after Monte-Carlo (2nd), Portugal (51st) & Kenya (4th). The Gap champion is, by the way, the only driver together with Tänak and Neuville, to have competed in the Rally New Zealand before.
Hyundai: To keep up the good work and prevent Rovanperä from sealing his title
In great spirits following their spectacular 1-2-3 in Greece, Hyundai wants to keep the title fight alive. Thus, it will concentrate all of its efforts on avoiding the coronation of Rovanperä in Auckland. Having won four of the last six races, they have reason to be optimistic ahead of the New Zealand Rally.
Tänak and Neuville will once again lead the team from Alzenau in its quest for victory. The Belgian racer is very motivated after his first hybrid win at the Acropolis Rally. Similarly, his Estonian partner is in great form having won the two preceding races in Finland and Belgium. On this occasion, Oliver Solberg will take the wheel of the third i20 N Rally1. The young Swede will return to complete his eighth round of the season after having lent the baton to Dani Sordo in Greece.
M-Sport: High expectations for the Rally New Zealand
Having ruled Adrien Fourmaux out for this weekend, Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith will form M-Sport’s line-up at Rally New Zealand together with Italy’s Lorenzo Bertelli, who will make his debut in the hybrid era on a third Puma Hybrid Rally1.
The British team has high expectations ahead of the Rally New Zealand round following the good performance of the English rocket in Greece. On top of this, the firm of the oval has sustained a love affair with the country for half a century. Since 1971, M-Sport has won nine races in the Kiwi country, a figure that makes it the most successful manufacturer in the history of the rally.
Images of Rally New Zealand: Toyota GAZOO Racing.