A comprehensive three-part scholarship programme running over three years has been launched by Rally New Zealand to help foster and develop the talents of young kiwi rally drivers.

"In 2009, the 'rising star' scholarship and two categories of 'rising star' award will offer aspiring and current rally drivers under the age of 26 significant opportunities to advance their rallying careers, locally and internationally," explained a statement to the media.

The objective is to help find rallying's equivalent of kiwi single-seater racing stars like Scott Dixon and Brendon Hartley, explained Rally New Zealand chairman Chris Carr.

"There is a wealth of young rallying talent in New Zealand," said Carr. "But we haven't seen a New Zealander take on the world's rally stars since the late Possum Bourne proved such a success internationally.

"Open to applicants less than 26 years of age on 1 January 2009, the programmes we have developed aim to provide very tangible benefits to the selected young drivers with financial, professional and competitive driving aspects all covered in their assessment and prize packages.

"We believe, with the right support, there are New Zealanders with the talent to compete in international rallying with great success. Our programme aims to help uncover and foster the special skills needed to succeed in world rallying."

The first programme, the Rally New Zealand rising stars scholarship, will provide the winner with an extensive support package worth approximately $50,000, including a professionally-prepared Group N3 front-wheel-drive rally car, to compete in all five rounds of the New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC) plus Rally New Zealand in 2009.

"The rising stars scholarship is for aspiring rally drivers who have not registered for Group N in the NZRC previously," explained Carr. "Essentially, the winner will earn a virtually fully-funded drive in the five national rallies plus Rally New Zealand this coming year. Within the next month, we will open applications for the 12 slots for our shootout weekend which will take place by early March. The applicants will go through a multi-stage testing process including physical fitness and mental aptitude testing, media interviews, a sponsorship presentation, a panel interview, and tuition and driving in front-wheel-drive rally cars.

"The top four candidates are then tested in a run-off, accompanied by a judge, with a final interview to select the winner. It will be an intense weekend, but a very worthwhile experience for any young driver seeking to prove their skills with a rally car and understand all the aspects of their personal presentation, fitness and preparation required for a professional rally career."

The second part to the programme is the Rally New Zealand rising stars development award. This aims to promote the Group N N3 (front-wheel-drive) class as a starting point for up-and-coming rally drivers.

"Many of the world's best rally drivers started in front-wheel-drive cars, hence our aim to promote this important class as part of a long-term career path to our young drivers," Carr added. "Take five-time world rally champion Sebasti?n Loeb for example. He was a French national and FIA two-wheel-drive champion for Citroen before he entered the World Rally Championship for the first time in 2002. And our own Mark Tapper, who now has a fantastic opportunity to prove his talents to the world in 2009 with the Pirelli star driver programme, credits his experience in the front-wheel-drive Ford Fiesta as playing an important role in his career development."

"Contesting the Group N N3 or front-wheel-drive class taught me the fundamentals needed to rally a four-wheel-drive car more competitively," continued Tapper, whose win in the Asia Pacific leg of the global Pirelli star driver contest earned him a fully-paid drive in a Group N 4WD Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X in six rounds of the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship - a prize worth over $NZ 1.1 million.

"Learning to drive flat out in a smaller front-wheel-drive car helps you learn to carry speed through corners more effectively. You also need to be a much smoother - and therefore faster - driver to do well in the N3 class. All skills very much worth having if you want to succeed internationally."

The rising stars development award sees applicants nominate four 2009 rally events - any two NZRC events plus the NAC Insurance International Rally of Whangarei and Rally New Zealand to ensure all applicants compete against each other at least twice. Drivers score points based on stage positions at each of their nominated rounds. The two top points' scorers plus a wildcard candidate go through to a final judging day.

"These three drivers must prepare and present a sponsorship proposal, complete a media interview, undergo physical and mental testing, present to the panel an analysis of their own strengths and weaknesses from the just-finished season and how they plan to focus and improve the following year," Carr stated. "After a final panel interview, the winner will receive expenses paid to the value of $50,000 towards their competing in a Group N N4 (4WD) car in 2010's NZRC and Rally New Zealand. This is approximately one-third to half the required budget. The award will also provide a mentor for the 2010 season to assist the winner's professional and sporting development."

The final tier to the Rally New Zealand young driver programme is the rising stars international award.

"We want to see more of our top drivers progress into the international rally competition. This award will run in a similar way to the rising stars development award, but the drivers will already be competing in Group N 4WD cars," said Carr. "The winner will receive expenses paid to the value of $50,000 which must be used in 2010 to compete in an overseas Asia Pacific Rally Championship or World Rally Championship event or the Pirelli star driver final offshore."

If the winners of the development or international awards do not take up their award then the next highest candidate from the final judging stage would receive the award.

The three awards will be run in 2009 and 2010 making this a very comprehensive support programme for young New Zealand rally drivers. The rising stars programme has been developed by the directors and management of Rally New Zealand and will be funded via a number of means including sponsorship.

"The success of drivers like Scott Dixon can be traced back to the implementation of a strong career development programme," Carr summed-up. "And from a rallying perspective, the first year's running of the global Pirelli star driver award shows the opportunities that can be uncovered for talented young drivers with the right support and targeted development programme. We believe our rising stars rally programmes will play an important role offering the kind of focussed opportunities needed to enable more young kiwi rally drivers to succeed on the world stage."

Full details of each Rally New Zealand rising star award will be released early in 2009.