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  • Rally New Zealand alternates with Rally Australia
  • Whatever the outcome, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena will leave New Zealand as championship leaders
  • Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie second in the standings, keen to maintain position

The 2012 FIA World Rally Championship season will reach its halfway point on the other side of the world at the Brother Rally New Zealand. Although certain to come away from Oceania still leading the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ World Championships, the Citroën Total World Rally Team and the Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena crew will be aiming to make this long-distance trip a positive experience. Second in the overall standings, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will also be keen to defend their position!

Rally New Zealand was not included in last year’s calendar (since it alternates with Rally Australia), but it is one of the rounds that is most appreciated by the drivers, who particularly enjoy the gravel roads on the North Island. Compared with the last time the rally featured in the WRC, the itinerary includes a significant part of the stages run around Raglan and Wangarei again, starting with the legendary Whaanga Coast, often acclaimed as the WRC’s most beautiful stage. Concentrated on roads around Auckland, day three will see the return of stages that have not been used since the 1990s.

Winners of four of the six rallies held so far this season, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena start the event as leaders of the World Championship. 30 points clear of their team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lethtinen, the eight-time World Champions will hold onto the lead over the summer break, regardless of the outcome in New Zealand.

Before totting up his points for the first half of the season, Sébastien’s thoughts turned to the enjoyment he gets from this special rally: “This rally may well be the pinnacle when it comes to driving on gravel. It’s a bit like Finland… except the trees are much further back from the side of the road! It has often been said that it’s an extremely quick course, but I think it’s actually quite varied, with some really twisty sections. It is a rally where you need to be pushing all the time. If you’re not giving it 100%, you can see it in the times straight away.”

Winner of the event in 2005 and 2008, Seb’s memories of the trip to New Zealand are not however all good ones: “True enough, I have won the rally twice out of six attempts, but I have also made some mistakes here. Some when I was pushing hard, some when I had adopted a more measured pace. The speeds we reach here are such that you have to stay perfectly focused all the time.”

Despite finishing on the podium three times here, Mikko Hirvonen has yet to win this rally. The Finn is nonetheless one of this event’s biggest fans: “It is certainly worth the 24-hour flight to get to Auckland. After the recent ‘rough’ gravel rallies, I’m pleased to be back on a surface that places greater emphasis on speed. We have already racked up four podium finishes this season and I am really hoping for another good result here.”

“With four wins out of the first six rallies, including two one-two finishes, the Citroën Total World Rally Team is on a good run,” reiterated Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “The trip to New Zealand should enable us at least to confirm if not increase our lead in both championships. The outcome of this rally is still far from certain, however, and we have seen in recent rounds that the gaps between the leading cars are very narrow. Everything suggests we’ll see yet another ding-dong battle in the World Rally Championship!”

Three questions for…Mikko Hirvonen

You finished in second position at the Acropolis Rally, but you make no secret of your preference for quicker surfaces… like the one on this next rally!

“Yes, Rally New Zealand is just great. Obviously, my favourite event is still Rally Finland, but this really is one of my favourites. The stages are run on fast-flowing roads and they allow you – or rather force you – to adopt a good pace right every inch of the way. It’s great fun to drive like that and I can’t wait to get there. This year, there are over 400 kilometres of stages to run, which makes it all the more exciting!”

It has often been said that the roads in New Zealand are quite specific, with series of banked corners that form a sort of propeller. Is it really special from a driving point of view?

“Most rallies have their specific features and Rally New Zealand is no exception; the gravel roads are indeed characterised by their pronounced camber. You have to be very precise during reconnaissance and note down carefully on which side of the road you need to position the car for braking. If you are on the wrong side, you can end up tilting the car and you’re certain to go off the road! You have to ‘master’ the contours of the roads, so that you can negotiate the bends more quickly. When you manage to do that, it’s exhilarating.”

In recent years, this rally has seen some very close finishes. Do you think there is an objective reason for that?

“I think it’s related to the nature of the roads. There is no rough gravel on the course and so it’s very unusual for the leading contenders to experience major problems at the start of the race. New Zealand is all about pure speed; we drive flat out from start to finish. The time differences can therefore be very minimal between those who have found the right pace. The race can come down to the last few stages. When there are several of us ‘busting a gut’ to try and win the rally, anything can happen!”

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