For rally drivers, New Zealand comes very close to rallying nirvana. The sweeping, rollercoaster roads and lush green scenery will look very familiar to anybody who has seen The Lord of the Rings, filmed entirely on location in New Zealand. There is a magical atmosphere to the whole country, and this year the rally returns to some of its best-known stages.
The rally is based in Auckland, home to about a third of New Zealand’s population, but uses remote service zones so that the drivers can cover plenty of ground during the event. New Zealand is famous for having a larger population of sheep than people, with just five million people distributed across a country that is approximately the same size as Italy, so there’s never a shortage of space.
Add that to the fast and cambered smooth gravel roads, spectacular valleys and breath-taking scenery, and you have the recipe for a truly amazing event, which all the drivers love. “The stages are magnificent; it’s one of the rallies where you get the most pleasure out of driving,” is how Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb, the World Rally Championship leader, sums it up.
The distance of Rally New Zealand makes this the longest world championship event since Rallye de France in 2003 so places a huge emphasis on endurance. The hard-compound Pirelli Scorpion tyres that the teams will use face one of their toughest tests yet, as it is currently autumn in New Zealand and variable weather conditions will only add to the challenge. Not only that, but there are several parts of the rally that are held on asphalt: including the pre-event shakedown, which means that the drivers will have very little information to work with as they head into the first loop of stages on Friday morning.
The hard compound tyres are really designed for hot and abrasive gravel conditions, such as the last three rallies in Mexico, Jordan and Turkey. Cooler weather will mean that it takes longer to get heat into the tyres and it is also tricky to find grip on Tarmac stretches and in the event of rain. However, the recent Rally of Turkey, which also contained several asphalted sections, proved the adaptability of Pirelli’s Scorpion tyres, even when operating in conditions that they were not designed for. This same versatility is carried through to every tyre in Pirelli’s road car range.
Another talking point in New Zealand is set to be road position, as the first car on the road traditionally suffers from having to sweep up loose gravel for the drivers following behind. However, the Pirelli Scorpion’s ability to disperse loose gravel quickly and efficiently meant that Citroen driver Sebastien Ogier was able to retain the lead on the second day of Rally of Turkey, even though he was running first.
Pirelli’s Rally Manager Mario Isola commented: “New Zealand is a classic event, which holds many good memories for us from the past, and we all enjoy going there. The conditions we are expecting are in the operating window for our soft tyre too, but our experience has shown that the hard tyre remains very fast and driveable even in conditions such as these, so we had no hesitation in nominating it for New Zealand, especially in view of the length of some of the stages. Our tyres have helped to ensure that the fight between the top drivers has been incredibly close this year, and I’m expecting exactly the same again in New Zealand.”
New Zealand is also the fourth round of the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship, for two-litre turbocharged Group N cars, and the fourth round of the FIA Super 2000 World Rally Championship, which uses normally aspirated two-litre cars. As part of its three-year deal as official supplier to the World Rally Championship, Pirelli also supplies the support championships: underlining the performance of the Italian rubber on a wide range of machinery as well as a wide range of different surfaces.
The 40th Rally New Zealand gets underway with a ceremonial start in Auckland on Thursday evening, before finishing on Sunday after 21 special stages covering 396.50 competitive kilometres.