After the asphalt of Sanremo, Skoda Motorsport face a different challenge on the other side of the world - Rally New Zealand (October 3-6).

The team are bringing two Octavia WRCs to the Antipodean event for the first time in several years.

The cars ran reliably in Sanremo, and showed themselves capable of finishing in a points-scoring position. But Kenneth Eriksson is hoping for even greater things from New Zealand - an event he won outright in 1997.

"It's a rally I like a lot," said the Swede. "It's quite a technical event, and one that suits my style of driving. The roads are very flowing, and I think they should suit the Octavia WRC. New Zealand is a real drivers' rally and I can't wait to get there."

Toni Gardemesiter also has high hopes for New Zealand. The young Finn made his World Rally Car debut on the 1999 event and finished an amazing third.

"I have a good feeling with the roads in New Zealand," he said. "They tend to be quite fast and the surfaces are very cambered. It's important to get into a good rhythm and then let the car flow."

New Zealand is a venue which has given Skoda happy memories in the past. The first appearance of the Skoda marque in a major rally in that country was before World championship times, on the 1971 Heatway Rally.

The privateer driver John Burnett's 110L helped the company win the manufacturers' team award, despite a major accident en route. That incident immediately popularised the car on account of its evident strength and ruggedness! In 1972, 30 years ago, three 120S cars were imported to the country, one being driven by the future NZ motorsport federation President Morrie Chandler.

"These were lovely little cars, specially prepared for competition with eight-port engines in Mlada Boleslav," he said. "What for me is thrilling is that two of these cars were recently found down south at Arrowtown, and one has been restored by one of the original co-drivers Colin Waite exactly as it was. This car will be on display at this year's event."

Skodas were then used privately by amateur drivers in the country, often by the journalist John Coker who finished the 1988 event in a 120L.

For 1996 Skoda sent their works team of Felicia Kit Cars to the event, with usual drivers Emil Triner and Pavel Sibera. It was a major success for Skoda, not just because all victories are precious, but because this was the heyday of the 2-litre Formula, and Skoda were almost alone in running undersized engines. The little 1500cc car of Sibera took an early lead in the W2L category in the damp opening stages, but then in drier conditions the full 2-litre SEAT of Puras went ahead before suffering electrical troubles.

This left Skoda winning the David and Goliath battle, in front of a field of amazing variety. The first six W2L cars at the end of the event were all from different manufacturers, and Skoda was best of all!

Emil Triner remembers the rally well. "This was one of my best rallying memories, and it wasn't just the thought of beating all the bigger engined cars, especially the SEATs," he said. "The stages themselves were really fantastic. They first remind you of Finland, which are very fast, but in New Zealand the roads are twistier, so you get the best of both. I remember that the company made a tremendous video of the event, and friends still say they play the video because it is so good."

1996 was the end of an era in rallying. It was the year before the World Rally Cars arrived, and 'Formula 2' was at its peak. Three more W2L events remained to run that year, Australia, Spain and Britain, and Skodas went on to win the category in both Australia and Britain, always in cars with engines much smaller than their rivals.

But the Skoda team does not have time to look back. All eyes are firmly focused on the start of this year's New Zealand rally in Auckland: a real test of man and machine.

The rally gets underway on Thursday evening (October 3) in the shadow of the Sky Tower. At 328 metres high, it is New Zealand's tallest building. The rally finishes at 1530 on Sunday (October 6) in Manukau after 26 special stages.