Title favourite Rovanperä excited to debut down under.
The FIA World Rally Championship goes down under this week as Repco Rally New Zealand (29 September - 2 October) returns to the series for the first time in a decade.
Fast-flowing gravel roads with cambered corners await the crews at this 11th round as the rally winds it way through forests and along the picture postcard coastline of the North Island.
Few of the WRC’s frontline stars have previously contested the Auckland-based fixture, which brings a unique challenge to the 13-round championship. Among those making their New Zealand debuts is Toyota Gazoo Racing wunderkind Kalle Rovanperä.
Poor results in recent rallies have seen Rovanperä’s title-leading deficit reduced to 53 points over Ott Tänak. The Finn celebrates his 22nd birthday this Saturday (1 October) and remains firmly on course to becoming the WRC’s youngest-ever champion.
A birthday isn’t the only thing Rovanperä might be celebrating this weekend, either. He could seal the drivers’ championship crown on Sunday should he outscore Tänak by eight points, or just seven if he wins the rally.
“It will be really interesting to go to Rally New Zealand,” said Rovanperä. “I have only heard good things about the country and the rally and how nice the roads are.
“Recent rallies have not been ideal for us but we know what we need to improve and we are working hard to have more pace and be more comfortable. Hopefully we can have good speed, enjoy the event and finish with a good result.”
Rovanperä is joined in GR Yaris Rally1 cars by Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta as well as eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier, who resumes his part-time campaign with the Japanese manufacturer on his first outing since Kenya in June.
With top-three results at the past four rallies, Hyundai Motorsport’s Tänak is hoping for more of the same. Teamed up with Thierry Neuville and Oliver Solberg in a trio of hybrid-powered i20 N cars, the Estonian admits that New Zealand’s fabled stages are a dream to drive on.
"The roads seem as if they were made for rallying," he smiled. "Hopefully we can get 100 per cent from the car and achieve a strong result."
Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith lead M-Sport Ford's charge, with Italian privateer Lorenzo Bertelli also fielding a Puma. Adrien Fourmaux was also due to drive for the British squad but withdrew his entry last week.
The four-day counter begins with a super special stage on Thursday evening and features 17 speed tests totalling 276.44km.