Citroen’s multiple world champion Sebastien Loeb heads the field for this year’s Repco Rally of New Zealand, which runs out of Hamilton’s Mystery Creek for three days at the end of August.
Last year, the Frenchman fought a needle match with the Ford of now-retired Marcus Gronholm, who took the closest-ever finish in world rally championship (WRC) history.
Ford’s charge this year is led by Mikko Hirvonen who has been Loeb’s main opponent during the 2008 championship.
Works Citroen C4s are entered for Loeb and Dani Sordo, and Hirvonen’s fellow Finn Jari-Matti Latvala will drive the second factory Focus RS.
Four more WRC Fords will be driven by Italian Gigi Galli, Englishman Matthew Wilson, Argentinean Federico Villagra and Norway’s Henning Solberg.
The Subaru World Rally Team fields Petter Solberg and Australian Chris Atkinson in the new-model Subaru Impreza WRC 2008.
Suzuki is fielding SX4 WRCs for Finn Toni Gardemeister and Swede Per-Gunnar Andersson.
“If the weather is good, New Zealand is one of my favourites,” says Andersson. “I have not competed there since 2005 when I participated in my Suzuki Ignis (front-wheel drive car), so I am looking forward to it.
“The mix of fast flowing and very twisty stages makes the event very interesting.”
There are 24 Production World Rally Championship competitors, including three New Zealanders, all in Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9s.
Chris West and Hayden Paddon get a PWRC start after winning Rally New Zealand scholarships.
Hawke’s Bay driver Stewart Taylor takes over the PWRC entry of Amjad Farrah and the Orion World Rally Team for this event. He’ll drive his own Mitsubishi.
Spectacular American Ken Block, who did several NZ Rally Championship rounds last year, will field a Subaru Rally Team USA Impreza.
World Group N champion, Toshi Arai, will be in a new Subaru, and Finn Juho Hanninen will drive a Neil Allport-run Ralliart New Zealand Lancer.
Fourteen NZ championship drivers will vie for local series points on the rally’s first two days. They’re led by series points leader Paddon and second-placed West.
Richard Mason, fifth in the NZRC at the moment, is the top-seeded starter outside the WRC and PWRC sections of the event, driving his BNT Subaru Impreza WRX STi. Mason was first New Zealander home on last year’s event and will be out to repeat the result.
Kiwi fastman, Andrew Hawkeswood, starts a Group A-spec Evo 7 behind Mason, though he’s not eligible to score NZRC points.
Two other fast Kiwis in Group A Evos are Glenn Inkster (Evo 6.5) and Nathan Thomas (Evo 7); and former champion Malcolm Stewart whose speed hasn’t diminished with time will field a Group A Evo 6.5.
NZRC contenders include Emma Gilmour (WRX), Sloan Cox (Evo 8), and Callum McInnes, Brad Ayling, Grant Barber, Andre Meier and Kirsty Nelson, all in WRXs.
Watch for raw pace from Kiwi Mark Tapper in a Group N Evo 9.
Five drivers will contest the Ford Fiesta Sporting Trophy: category winner from last weekend’s Hawke’s Bay Rally, Patrick Malley; his father Dermot; fellow Kiwi Ben Jagger; fast Australian Brendan Reeves; and Japanese driver, Motoharu Kaseya. Repco Rally New Zealand runs from Friday, August 29, till Sunday, August 31.
It’s Round 11 of the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship.
Event passes, programmes and rally map are available from all Repco stores, online at www.repco.co.nz and at the event.