Hallinta Hoop, 22.8.2008
Hallinta Hoop, 22.8.2008
The fast and flowing gravel roads of New Zealand could not provide a greater contrast to the previous round of the World Rally Championship, held on asphalt in Germany. New Zealand is the longest of the long-haul rallies but it is also one of every driver's favourite events. One look at the roads and it is easy to see why: the rollercoaster stages are rapid and challenging, snaking their way through the lush green countryside of New Zealand's spectacular North Island.
The main characteristics of the stages are the heavily cambered corners - a bit like banking on a race circuit - that allow the drivers to carry plenty of speed through the bends. These corners come up in rapid succession, so it is crucial for drivers to find the right rhythm to make the car flow from one bend to the next. Get it right, and the satisfaction is enormous, as the car will float almost effortlessly through the twisty stages. Get it wrong and there is potential for an accident, particularly with the amount of loose gravel by the side of the road. To add another intriguing element into the mix, weather conditions are often variable in New Zealand: the fertile green countryside is the direct result of frequent rain showers.
This year's Rally New Zealand is located once more around the town of Hamilton, about two hours' drive south of Auckland. The rally gets underway in the evening of Thursday 28th August with a ceremonial start in Hamilton town centre at 18:30. The opening day on Friday concludes with a spectator superspecial stage in the Mystery Creek complex, which houses the service park as well. This superspecial is also the 16th and last stage of the rally on Sunday 31st August, just before the finish podium at 15:00. For more details please visit: www.rallynz.org
Just like Rally Finland, New Zealand is not too hard on mechanical components. This is because the stages have a reasonably smooth gravel surface, with not too many heavy braking areas, and enough airflow to assist engine and brake cooling. The base set-up will be similar to that used in Finland (in fact, Toni Gardemeister's car is the very same one he drove in Finland), although the cars tend to ride a little higher and softer in New Zealand to cope with the undulating roads. On the second run through the stages the surfaces can cut up quite badly, so it is important to have a flexible approach to set-up.
Both Suzuki drivers have been extremely pleased with the SX4 WRC's level of reliability over the last two rallies, and the team now plans to continue this solid form on the other side of the world in New Zealand. The suspension and damper settings will be specifically refined for the local roads, making the shakedown test on Thursday morning an important opportunity to fine-tune the SX4 WRC to yet another rally that is entirely new to it.
A raft of improvements to the car originally introduced for Rally Finland - such as evolutions to the bodyshell and engine - should be well-suited to the roads in New Zealand as well. The cars will use Pirelli's hard compound Scorpion gravel tyres for the first time since the Rally of Turkey in June.
New Zealand is one of the favourite rallies of Suzuki's lead driver Toni Gardemeister, who has participated on the Antipodean event six times. Back in 1999, Toni made his World Rally Car debut in New Zealand - and went on to finish a stunning third overall in his first event! It was one of the most remarkable starts to a World Rally career ever made, and the Finn has loved the twisty roads of the island ever since. Of his six participations, Toni has finished in the points four times. However, he has not contested the rally since 2005 and the route has changed considerably since then, with the move south to Hamilton.
"This rally is great fun to drive: it's like nowhere else in the world," said Toni. "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."
"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."
The long trip to New Zealand will be as much a test for the whole Suzuki team as it will for the two drivers. The entire team's equipment is freighted around the long-haul events in large containers, which means that the mechanics will not be working out of the usual trucks and motorhomes. With New Zealand time 10 hours ahead of Central European Time, the team personnel also have to cope with the effects of jet lag in a very different environment. Nonetheless, Suzuki has extensive experience of competing in the Far East thanks to its previous successful campaigns in the FIA Asia-Pacific Championship. The SX4 WRC has demonstrated impressive reliability over the last few events, and the team aims firmly to consolidate the consistency shown to date and work on the car's speed.
Nobuhiro 'Monster' Tajima, the Principal of the Suzuki World Rally Team, commented: "New Zealand is an absolutely classic event, which is also a very good all-round test of driver and car. It is precisely by confronting challenges such as this one that we can continue to improve our car and build on the concrete progress that we have made to date."