New Zealand rally driver Mark Tapper and co-driver Jeff Judd won their battle against the odds of completing the World Rally Championship event in Greece
The pair finished the gruelling three-day rally over the weekend despite driveline failure.
The Acropolis Rally was the third WRC event for Tapper in the inaugural worldwide Pirelli Star Driver programme and he finished second of the five Pirelli-backed drivers, ninth in the Production category (P-WRC) and a very credible 21st overall.
Accompanied by Christchurch’s Jeff Judd in the Ralliart Italia team-prepared Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X, Tapper had a simple goal of finishing the 350 kilometre journey on the Greek rock-strewn roads.
Notoriously tough, the Acropolis Rally got the better of several WRC heavyweights with five-time world rally champion Sebastién Loeb, Petter Solberg and Dani Sordo all succumbing to the conditions early on.
By early Saturday morning, Tapper and Judd had moved into 19th position overall and the leading Pirelli Star Driver. However their plan of a perfect run ended on the day’s penultimate test, a broken driveshaft sidelining their steady progress.
“We broke a driveshaft and that bent the steering so we had to retire for the day, which is disappointing because we were trying to look after the car,” said Tapper who copped the specified a ten minute time penalty to be allowed to restart on Sunday.
“I was probably really driving at about 80 to 90 per cent. A few of the stages we pushed in and had good split times but in the rough sections I just backed off. The team lost cars early on again and I wanted to get to the finish for the team as much as myself and Jeff. To finish without losing those ten minutes would have been better, but what happens, happens.”
Tapper did his best to pull back the deficit to leading Pirelli Star Driver South African Jon Williams and finished just under two-minutes behind.
“The team was pretty happy we didn’t scratch the car and we were only two of the five [Pirelli] cars that finished,” he mused.
In Greece’s formidable mid-summer heat, the low speeds and high ambient temperature create uncomfortable cabin conditions. However that was no match for the road conditions, said Tapper.
“The heat wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be and I really enjoyed the whole rally. But I think I needed to be even fitter from looking at split times in the latter parts of the longer stages – the times do tell the story. So I’ll come home and work on that, but it was fairly extreme and I’d be confident doing a rally like Finland where you wouldn’t have the same demands. You get thrown around in the rough [in Greece]; it’s a lot more physically demanding than normal.
“You just couldn’t know how rough some of the roads are. In places you literally could not get a normal two-wheel-drive car through the road. It’s like driving down a river bed in the South Island flat out. I was putting the car in neutral, putting my foot on the clutch and coasting over a lot of it, because of the shock through the driveline.
“The first day of the rally the roads were really good and that probably gave us a false sense of security to tell you the truth – they were really nice.”
Tapper and Judd now return to New Zealand, intending to contest the next round of the Vantage New Zealand Rally Championship in an Andrew Hawkeswood Group A car. The pair have the job of finalising details for their run in Repco Rally Australia in early September, and then will return to Europe for testing with the Ralliart Italia team ahead of the next event in Finland (30 July to 2 August).
Completing their 2009 Pirelli Star Driver programme, Tapper and Judd will contest Rally Spain (1-4 October) and Great Britain from 22 to 25 October. They will compete in Repco Rally Australia (4-6 September) outside the Pirelli-funded schedule.