The 40th edition of Rally New Zealand saw an enthralling battle evolve in the S-WRC class as Jari Ketomaa/Mika Sterberg produced a stunning victory in their Ford Fiesta S2000 after the three-day event, preventing Spanish competitor, Xevi Pons, from a third consecutive victory.
This year’s Rally New Zealand returned to Auckland for the first time since 2005, enabling rally organisers to reintroduce fast, flowing stages from 2005’s WRC rally alongside four brand new stages comprising of mixed gravel and tarmac road surfaces. A new service park at Queen’s Wharf was built beside Auckland’s harbour where thousands of lively WRC fans flocked to watch the official ceremonial start on Thursday evening.
The first full day of action saw seven S-WRC competitors venture north to the Whangareri and Kaipara region for a series of eight stages along fast, flowing gravel roads. Mild temperatures and lack of rainfall meant that day one’s stages were dusty with a thick layer of gravel. Both Janne Tuohini and Ketomaa struggled with the amount of dust on these opening stages but Tuohini came off worst and rolled his car during SS5, forcing him to retire.
Ketomaa’s crank sensor failed during SS3 and reported further problems with his engine in SS4 but the short 15 remote service at Whangerai meant his engineers were unable address the problems thoroughly. Despite this, the Finn led the S-WRC class at the end of day one – 22.5 seconds ahead of competitor, Xevi Pons and his co-driver Alex Haro. Czech Martin Prokop had a clear run and was lying in third position – this completed a clean Fiesta podium finish after the first nine stages.
Day two’s stages were based south of Auckland, in the Franklin and Northern Waikato region with parts of the tests used in 2006, 2007 and 2008’s rally and a repeat loop of a new 4.68km Super Special Stage set on tarmac at the international Hampton Downs Motor Race Circuit.
Janne Tuohino returned to the action on day two under SupeRally regulations, despite his Fiesta S2000 suffering extensive damage as a result of his roll on Friday. Ketomaa continued to lead the S-WRC class throughout day two whilst Martin Prokop produced a series of consistent times and managed to maintain third position. Pons had a clear run but the gap between the Spaniard and the seemingly unstoppable Ketomaa extended to over a minute by the end of day two.
Overnight rain on Saturday night made the final four tests over 81.70km next to the west coast town of Raglan quite slippery. The picturesque Whaanga Coast stage, SS19 and SS21, is notoriously difficult in the WRC calendar and consisted of a variety of crests, open roads and twisting corners which run along the spectacular Tasman Sea coastline.
An exciting battle ensued for second place during the afternoon’s SWRC class and Prokop was just 16.4 seconds adrift of Pons at the end of SS20. Tuohini, on the other hand, encountered another stroke of bad of luck as he started the final stage on only three cylinders but felt his engine tighten after 6km, forcing the young Finn to retire.
The end of the fourth round of the S-WRC in Rally New Zealand saw a clean sweep of podium finishes for the Fiesta S2000s. Ketomaa produced ten fastest stage times during the three-day event and led Pons by 54.1 seconds overall. The Fiesta S2000 has now won the opening three rounds of the SWRC class and Pons leads the championship overall.
Xevi Pons said:
“I was pushing a lot on the first day and the car felt good. Each stage I felt as if I was doing better than the last. The car set-up was good on Saturday but I made some silly mistakes in the morning’s stages. I tried to concentrate more this afternoon and it paid off. I had a small spin but Ketomaa was pushing hard. Today the set-up of the car was perfect but the first two stages were slippery. The second loop in the afternoon was better. I am happy overall because second place is still very good for the championship.
Janne Tuohino said:
“I am really disappointed after this weekend. I felt that I was getting into a good rhythm on Saturday but struggled again on Sunday. I knew it was a risk to drive on three cylinders before I started the final stage but I really wanted to get to the end and finish. It was very sad for me to have to retire when I was so close to finishing the 21 stages.”
Jari Ketomaa said:
“This was a great rally and I gained a lot of confidence from over the weekend. The stages were similar to the roads back in Finland so I was able to manipulate them better in comparison to Jordan which was a bit of a disaster. Everything started well on Friday but Pons was pushing all day so I needed to hold concentration for the whole day. On the second day, we were struggling in the slow sections with understeer but the car was working well. The rain overnight made the stages quite slippery today so I was struggling to find the right rhythm I was just trying to keep on the road though and hold onto my position.”
Martin Prokop said:
“The first day was really fun and the set-up on the car was good. I had a small problem with my engine on Friday but I was just trying to keep up my speed and keep an eye on Xevi [Pons]. On Saturday, we lost a lot of time in the afternoon because of all the dust. The time we lost from Friday meant we lost the battle with Ketomaa and Pons. I enjoyed today’s stages very much and I had a good rhythm, the car set up was perfect. I look forward to my next round in Finland.”
M-Sport Managing Director Malcolm Wilson said:
“This was an extremely exciting round in the S-WRC class and I am delighted that the [Ford] Fiesta S2000 had an overall 1-2-3 finish. Ketomaa drove sensationally over the weekend and Pons did well to keep on his tail throughout – we are lucky to have so many talented drivers in this class.”