Ready, Set, Let's Go!
'It's Tomo again and this time I'm writing live from Auckland. I arrived safe and sound on Saturday morning and I have to say it's great to be back in New Zealand. Being here feels a lot like a home-away-from-home - everybody speaks English, menus offer traditional English food (the pies in our hospitality are incredible!), they drive on the left like us and the weather which passes through four seasons in one day sometimes from torrential rain to bursts of beautiful sunshine is just as temperamental!
'I flew to New Zealand via Hong Kong and brought along 80kg of spare parts and equipment including the latest specification of gravel dampers for Armindo. It was impossible to ship these air freight as we are always improving details of both performance and reliability right down to the last minute.
'When we arrived after a marathon journey, we immediately set to unpacking the container from Argentina and setting up the service area. That done I moved onto checking fuel calculations for the rally. This is vital for two reasons. Firstly I have to ensure the car doesn't run out of gas! Secondly it affects the car's weight. The minimum weight is 1200kg without crew and 1350kg with crew. We're lucky - the combined weight of Armindo and Miguel is 132kg (very light!) so hitting our minimum weight target becomes a science - or rather an art! For an engineer preparing the car closest to the target is a big win! We add some extra weight to the MINI to ensure it meets the requirement at all times. If for any reason the car starts using more fuel pushing it below the minimum then we risk exclusion. It's quite a job accurately tracking car weight. Things we monitor include the crews' camel bag levels - Armindo and Miguel have three litres each and I get a bit angry if it isn't all drunk, because it can equate to 6kg and throw my weight calculation off. Equally, on an average loop there is around 3-4kg of tyre wear, but it can be more if the roads are very abrasive.
'Specific to New Zealand in terms of weight is mud accumulation. NZ can be bad for this, with some sections of the rally being quite wet and muddy it can add as much as 100kg. So when the crews stop to change their tyres they can be seen with home-made spatulas specifically designed to scrape the mud off as quickly as possible.
'One of my jobs at the beginning of the week was stage inspection. In New Zealand, the stages offer a fantastic challenge for the crews. The car needs to change direction quickly and it's an event where set-up is vital to clocking fast times. Changes to grip make things even harder - some corners can be quite muddy and then other have good grip. Weather just compounds the complexity! If it rains then road position is vital. Engineering staff work hard to get the most from cars and drivers, but there will also be intense weather monitoring as we try to predict when and where the rain will fall.
'At the end of a hard day's rally prep, it's necessary to wind down. For that reason I like to walk down to the Brewery pub for a beer. It's a stone's throw from the Service Park and is one of Auckland's oldest buildings. For serious beer tastings they even have their own dedicated room! After a good beer I like to grab something to eat and my favourite place is just a few hundred yards from the Service Park. It's called Angus Steak House :-)
'The FIA’s technical checks passed well yesterday, we had all the anti-tamper seals checked on the MINIs and spare parts and added seals to five sets of dampers. The cars were set-up according to both Armindo and Paulo’s comments after recce and anticipating the conditions of the Qualifying Stage. We looked at previous Rally New Zealands, particularly 2007 - the last time the cars were Michelin-shod as tyre choice will be critical this weekend due to the unpredictable weather conditions.
'Many other aspects of the car specification are weather dependent. If it becomes wet, the main set-up changes are to springs, anti-roll bars and dampers, which become softer. This helps to make the MINI more progressive for Armindo and Paulo and it’s easier for the drivers to predict levels of grip available. This is very important in the changeable NZ conditions when driving through patchy wet and muddy sections. We also shift the balance to the rear slightly so the rear of the car slides more easily than the front and the car turns into corners well. Everyone driving on the road has experience trying to get their car to turn on ice or snow in winter when all it wants to do is go straight on! The driver has a similar feeling to a lesser degree when he hits mud - what we don’t want to do however is go too far with the change, otherwise the car slides too much and a lot of time is lost. This is great for the spectators as it looks spectacular but in reality is very slow!
'Free practice and qualifying met expectations this morning. Armindo ran on hard tyres for the first run and switched to soft for the second, then stayed on soft for qualifying as this was the fastest tyre for the conditions. Paulo’s engineer this weekend, George [pictured with me above], specialises in engine calibration and tweaked the engine software to optimise the speed at which the turbo runs.
'Paulo ran on hard tyres for free practice and qualifying as he wanted to keep his limited stock of soft tyres for the rally. The cars are back in service now and we are going over them to check everything is as it should be for the rally tomorrow. Day One is a very tough leg with the largest of stage mileage. I do feel that the event may be decided by Friday evening but who knows, already this year we have seen extreme situations like in Portugal where multiple unexpected retirements proved that in rally really anything can happen!
Bye for now,' Tomo