Eight-time world champion Sébastien Loeb has the overnight lead in Brother Rally New Zealand after the event’s second day, extending slightly the lead he had over Citroën Total World Rally Team team-mate Mikko Hirvonen following the first day.
Popular Norwegian driver Petter Solberg, driving for the Ford World Rally Team, has moved into third overall ahead of Russian Evgeny Novikov in an M-Sport Ford. Novikov’s team-mate Estonian Ott Tänak holds fifth overnight as competitors in the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship return from the highly-regarded rally stages around Whangarei and Kaipara, north of Auckland, to the service park on Auckland’s waterfront.
Loeb’s slender 6.4s margin reflects the intensity of the battle among the top runners. Initially Loeb looked to have the speed to pull away from Hirvonen – after just two stages on Saturday morning Loeb’s advantage had grown to 8s. But Hirvonen’s pace on the final stage of the morning loop brought him back to within 1.7s of Loeb.
With just ten of the soft compound tyres and up to 24 of the hard compound, strategies around which tyres to use were complicated by the variable road conditions. Conditions were sunny as Solberg started the day on softs, while Loeb elected for softs on the front, hard on the rear.
"We’ve had a good battle with Mikko [Hirvonen] today," said Loeb, who won two of the seven stages. "It’s been difficult this afternoon, very slippery and I really don’t like that Girls High School stage. It’s very technical and I lost about eight seconds there this morning. It’s exciting to have a battle with Mikko and tomorrow I will have to push to keep him behind."
Solberg had a trouble-free day and also snared two stage wins, but, as the leading Ford, is still nearly a minute and a half adrift of Hirvonen with just 61.33km of competition to come on Sunday’s final six stages. The morning – and the day – ended with Loeb, Hirvonen, Solberg, Novikov and Tänak ahead of Thierry Neuville in a Citroën, Dani Sordo in the first of the Minis and Solberg’s Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala – who was driving well and also won two stages outright. WRC Team Mini Portugal driver Armindo Araujo was ninth as a problem with a shock damper cost him time while tenth-placed American Ken Block continued to get more confident on the fast, flowing roads to put pressure on Araujo.
The top New Zealander is Super 2000 World Rally Championship contender Hayden Paddon who had a much better day after replacing the gearbox in his S2000-spec Skoda to finish the morning twelfth.
Paddon said: "It hasn’t been too bad today; we’ve been setting some good stage times. There is still a lot of room for improvement and we still need to find a good balance in the car to give me good confidence. At the moment I’m not able to drive 110%."
After the remote service break in Whangarei, all cars left with hard compound tyres which proved more difficult for some as showers passed through all afternoon, leaving the roads damp.
Hirvonen acknowledged that: "Seb is not making it easy anyway, I keep pushing hard and he takes the time back in the next split so it’s a good fight."
In the late afternoon came the news that the Mitsubishi of Production World Rally Championship contenders Ramona Karlsson and Miriam Walfridsson had caught fire. The only all-female crew in the event were running through special stage 15, Girls High School 2, approximately 40km south-west of Whangarei. They got out of the car without significant injuries and were given assistance by following competitors. Emergency personnel were deployed to contain the fire, assess and evacuate the pair. They were checked by medical personnel and have retired from the remainder of the event. The stage was stopped by officials and assessed times calculated for those competitors who toured through stage before returning to service their vehicles in Auckland.
Richard Mason, from Masterton, continues to lead the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship, powered by Brother (NZRC) field. Mason, the three-time New Zealand rally champion, is 12.8s ahead of Dunedin’s Emma Gilmour for the day, who in turn is over two minutes ahead of Christchurch’s Matt Jansen. The three NZRC competitors – all in Subarus – hold 13th, 14th and 15th overall respectively and are all ahead of the leading Production World Rally Championship driver Marcos Ligato, from Argentina, who holds 17th in another Subaru.
Sunday’s final six stages include the tarmac runs around Auckland Domain super special stage and stages around Puhoi and Kaukapakapa before the ceremonial finish at Silo Park on Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.
Detailed spectator and ticket information and current news is available on the event website www.rallynz.org.nz