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.
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.
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.