Having switched over to asphalt for the tenth round of the World Rally Championship, gravel is the order of the day once again for round eleven as the series heads down under for Rally New Zealand.

Regarded as a favourite amongst the drivers, the 2008 running of Rally New Zealand will have to go someway to match the drama of 2007, when Marcus Gronholm edged out Sebastien Loeb for victory in the closest finish in WRC history.

Special notes:

The rally is based at Hamilton, 130km south of Auckland and close to North Island's west coast. The single service park is based at Mystery Creek Events Centre, a few kilometres to the south.

Heading towards spring, temperatures are expected to be between 10-15 degrees Celsius, but recent storms have led to heavy rain along much of the route Indeed, the opening leg on Friday has been amended due to storm damage in the Waitomo stage which rendered 80 metres of road impassable.

The event is known for its smooth gravel, but the recent rain could play a part in deciding how important road position is during the opening leg of competition - with the top level of gravel having been washed away and a layer of mud expected to be pulled to the surface as cars run through the stages.

While there were due to be 16 stages of competition, the splitting of the Waitomo test - which is due to be run twice - means crews will now tackle 18 stages over the three days. The affected tests will be know as SS2.1 and SS2.2 during the first run, and SS4.1 and SS4.2 on the second run.

The event will run over 353.04km of competitive action.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Sebastien Loeb has retaken the lead of the drivers' title race after continuing is record of being the only person to win Rallye Deutschland since it became part of the WRC schedule. He holds a lead of four points over Mikko Hirvonen who could only finish off the podium in fourth. Dani Sordo moved ahead of Chris Atkinson into third place after completing a Citroen 1-2.

That 1-2 means Citroen now lead the manufacturers' title race by eight points from Ford, with Subaru remaining third.

Gigi Galli suffered a broken leg on Rallye Deutschland which is likely to rule him out for the remainder of the year. Francois Duval replaces him in the Stobart team in New Zealand. Duval will then join Mikko Hirvonen in the Ford 'A' team for the asphalt events in Spain and Corsica with Jari-Matti Latvala moving back over to the Stobart team.

Subaru meanwhile will run a third Impreza on the same events for Brice Tirabassi.

Pre-event quotes:

Sebastien Loeb [Citroen Total WRT]:

"I have always enjoyed this rally ever since I first came here in 2002. The lush green backdrop to the stages is magnificent. The stages are fast and technically demanding, but the cars don't suffer. From the driving point of view, it's certainly one of my favourite events. We narrowly missed out on victory last year by just three-tenths of a second after one of the most thrilling fights the WRC has ever seen. I won't be able to take revenge this time, though, because Marcus Gronholm isn't around any more. It nonetheless promises to be a very close three days of competition.

"We will be first on the road, but just how big a handicap that turns out to be will depend on how damp the conditions are. There are quite a few stages that we will only contest once, so we potentially stand to lose quite a lot of time. That said, the fact that we will be first on the road on day one means that we are on top in the championship, and we intend to do all we can to defend that lead! The key will be to find a set-up for our C4 WRC that works with the Pirelli Hard tyre. The set-up we ran in Finland was very good and I had a great feeling with my car. It will be up to us to find ourselves in the same sort of position in New Zealand."

Mikko Hirvonen [BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT]:

"The roads in New Zealand have a good rhythm to them and they are so smooth that there's no need to worry about damaging the car on rocks. The cambered corners encourage attacking driving but it's important not to position the car on the wrong side of the camber coming into a corner. If that happens then the car ends up sliding wide or perhaps not even making it round at all.

"If the temperatures are cool and it is wet then hard compound tyres will be far from easy. There is no choice in the matter. We will all have to use that compound because those are the rules but I will need to be very careful because it will be hard to get heat into the tyres in those temperatures. It could be like the first stage in Argentina where I took risks in similar conditions and was able to make a very fast time - the alternative is that the risks don't work and the car goes off the road.

"The engine improvements on the new car that we debuted in Germany have made a difference. The tight regulations mean it's not possible to make big steps forward but the engine response has definitely improved. Everything happens a little faster than it did so I hope that will benefit us in New Zealand also. It's important to win rallies for our title challenges but if I can't do that then I have to score as many points as possible."

Dani Sordo [Citroen Total WRT]:

"It's a long way to get there, but I love the New Zealand stages and also the country itself. You can really just focus on your driving without fear of damaging the mechanicals, and that's very nice! This is only my third visit, of course. The pace is so quick that it's essential to have a good feel for the terrain and I still perhaps lack sufficient experience. That said, our performance in Finland suggests that a good result is possible. Indeed, there are a few similarities between the two events, so that will be a big confidence booster in New Zealand.

"I'm expecting it to be very close again, and I intend to approach the three days very cautiously, although I would very much like to target another podium finish."

Chris Atkinson [Subaru WRT]:

"I'm really looking forward to New Zealand but we need to find a little more speed if we're going to compete with the likes of Seb, Mikko and Jari-Matti. We have some good ideas from Finland, so if everything works out, I think we could be strong there. As with last year it's the closest to my home rally this season so I'm looking forward to getting there, meeting all the guys who are coming over from home, and closing the gap to those in front."

Jari-Matti Latvala [BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT]:

"This is a rally that I enjoy and after my disappointment in Germany earlier this month it will help to go to a rally that I like and feel comfortable with. I prefer to go here now than a tough, rocky rally like the Acropolis in Greece for example.

"The countryside is beautiful and the roads are great. The surface is a mix of sand and very smooth gravel which is hard packed so the conditions are good and the cambered roads allow more speed to be carried through the bends. There has been a lot of rain there so an early start position is a benefit. Wet roads mean there will be no loose gravel on top and I should be through the tests before the mud comes to the surface and makes it really slippery for those further down the start order."

Petter Solberg [Subaru WRT]:

"I like New Zealand as it is fast and flowing, and you really have to have the confidence to commit to be quick. At the end of Germany I was feeling really good, it was a definite step forward. But now we are back to gravel so it's totally different, so we work on what we had in Finland and see where we go from there. I hope we can keep the same feeling from Germany and then I think we'll be quite strong."

Henning Solberg [Munchi's Ford WRT:

"I'm really looking forward to New Zealand as, for me, it will be great to be back on gravel. The stages are fast and very flowing and that's exactly the conditions I like best; it lets me get a good feeling with the car and helps with my confidence. I've never had an especially good result there before but we have made some good improvements on gravel throughout the year so maybe this time we can push for a good finish and to get some more points for the championship."

Matthew Wilson [Stobart VK M-Sport Ford WRT]:

"This is probably my favourite event so I'm really looking forward to it and getting back on gravel after Germany. We are also nominated to score points on what is one of my stronger events so hopefully we can help the Stobart team out in New Zealand. I like the nature of the stages and the camber of the corners plus the high speeds which give the event a Finland sort of feel. I have heard reports of quite bad weather recently in Hamilton so it will be interesting to see how the stages hold up once we are out there."

Francois Duval [Stobart VK M-Sport Ford WRT]:

"I haven't competed in New Zealand for two years so it will be difficult going back there with some new stages and knowing most of the other competitors have the advantage of experience on the roads. But I know that the Ford Focus is a fantastic car on gravel and that is a good feeling for me; I am confident that I will be able to a find a comfortable setting with it quite soon. It is also a benefit to have spent time in the car just last week. My plan for the rally is firstly to try and finish in the points and if the confidence is good then maybe I will be able to increase the speed."

Federico Villagra [Munchi's Ford WRT:

"For me New Zealand is a rally I like very much but it can also be very tricky especially if the conditions are wet. We had a good result here last year and also in 2005 when I was in the PWRC. The stages are very much like Finland only with much less jumps so for me this is very enjoyable. Having Henning in the team is a big help because he has a lot of experience especially on fast gravel. He has already scored some good points for the Munchi's team this year as we try and stay ahead of Suzuki in the championship. I have been racing in Argentina and we won the rally on the weekend so things are feeling pretty good with my driving at the moment."

Toni Gardemeister [Suzuki WRT]:

"This rally is great fun to drive: it's like nowhere else in the world. It's been a long time since I drove in New Zealand and most of the stages will be new to me, but I'm looking forward to them and I think they should suit us well. I've always had a good feeling in New Zealand and if things go well we have a decent chance of a good result. The most important thing is that our SX4 WRC seems very reliable now, so if we stay out of trouble again we can hope to score some points. Certain parts of Rally New Zealand are a little bit like Finland, but you don't need so much power: it's more a question of carrying the momentum through all the bends and finding a good rhythm."

Per-Gunnar Andersson [Suzuki WRT]:

"There's going to be a lot for me to take on board, but from what I remember of the Rally New Zealand I liked it very much," said P-G. "It's the sort of place where you can't force a car: you have to drive naturally and let the rhythm come to you. In that respect, it's a little bit similar to Sweden. I'm going to try not to make any mistakes, and hopefully we should have a good result to show for our efforts."

Production WRC:

Round 6:

No fewer than 24 drivers will take part in the sixth round of the Production WRC in New Zealand, with points leader Andreas Aigner amongst them.

The Red Bull Rallye team driver missed the last round in Finland earlier this month and saw his points lead cut to eight by Juho Hanninen. Aigner will be taking part in the event for the first time, while Hanninen has already competed on Kiwi soil on a number of occasions in the past.

"That's certainly a clear advantage for Juho," Aigner - who will only take in one more event after New Zealand as opposed to two for his rival - said. "But I'll try to compensate with a way of driving that's tactically clever and by keeping an eye on him from the very start. The team is keeping us informed about current split times in the car, so we are able to orientate ourselves much better. Two things are for certain: On the one hand I can't afford to retire, needing to score points without fail, on the other it would be ideal to finish ahead of Hanninen. And to be able to realise this plan, it will also be important to keep a clear head."

Jari Ketomaa will also hope to build on his Finnish result to improve on his third place in the standings, with the Subaru man just two points behind Hanninen and ten away from leader Aigner.

Patrick Sandell and Fumio Nutahara meanwhile will continue their private battle for fourth in the standings, with the pair currently sharing the position on 14 points going into the weekend.

Other significant entries:

65 crews set to start

65 crews are due to start Rally New Zealand, with 14 in WRC cars. Aside from the 'works' entries - which includes the Munchi's Ford team for the eighth round of its ten rally programme - Conrad Rautenbach and Urmo Aava will both be in action in their PH Sport-run Citroen C4 WRCs.

No fewer than 24 cars from the Production World Rally Championship will also be in action with the remainder of the entry mainly made up of Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru Imprezas. There will however be five Fiesta STs taking the start.

Route:

The scheduled itinerary was virtually identical to 2007, with only minor alterations to two stages on the opening day and the removal of a short test from the final leg. However, landslides have forced organisers to split the monster 43.98km Waitomo test into two parts on the first day. After a ceremonial start in Hamilton on Thursday evening, the opening leg heads south-west. The second leg is based north-west before the spectacular final day which hugs the Tasman Sea coastline and includes a remote service zone at Raglan. The highlight is two passes over the classic Whaanga Coast test, with dramatic views over the ocean. Each leg includes a short test at Mystery Creek, in view of the service park. There are 18 stages in total, covering 353.04km in a route of 1218.20km.

Last year:

After a three-day long battle, Marcus Gronholm took victory in New Zealand last year by the closest margin in WRC history - finishing just 0.3 seconds ahead of Sebatien Loeb. Although unaware at the time, it would also be the final win of Gronholm's illustrious career, as he went on to retire at the end of the year.

Mikko Hirvonen completed the podium while Chris Atkinson, Jari-Matti Latvala, Dani Sordo, Petter Solberg and Urmo Aava all brought home points.

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