Motorsport: Finns flying in Rally NZ

By Eric Thompson

Finland's Mikko Hirvonen trailed by just 0.4s in his Citroen after the shakedown stage at Inland Rd, Helensville, yesterday. Picture / Greg Bowker.
Finland's Mikko Hirvonen trailed by just 0.4s in his Citroen after the shakedown stage at Inland Rd, Helensville, yesterday. Picture / Greg Bowker.

Jari-Matti Latvala feels he needs to win every rally for the rest of the year to have the chance of victory in the WRC championships after a disrupted season so far. He will take that attitude into this week's Rally New Zealand.

He made the perfect start, finishing first in yesterday's qualifying near Helensville and, with it, gaining the advantage of picking his running position for today's long first day around Raglan.

Ford's Latvala edged fellow Finn Mikko Hirvonen (Citroen) by just 0.4s, finishing the 4.86km course in 2m 31.8s. Norway's Petter Solberg in a Ford was third with reigning champion and current points leader Sebastien Loeb of France fourth in his Citroen.

New Zealand's Hayden Paddon topped qualifying in his Skoda Fabia in the second-tier Super 2000, finishing more than a second ahead of Saudi Arabia's Yazeed Al-Rajhi in a Ford Fiesta in their shakedown run in Kaukapakapa, north of Auckland.

Most are expecting eight-time WRC champion Loeb to win on Kiwi soil, but he has done that only twice in seven attempts.

Five-time winner Marcus Gronholm was his nemesis in the early days, and when the event was held last in 2010, it was Latvala who took the top spot. As the defending champion, Latvala is keen to cut into Loeb's healthy championship lead and the roads appear to suit his fast and slightly aggressive style.

Loeb leads the points table on 119 from Hirvonen on 89 with Latvala back in fifth on 45. The Finn has had an up-and-down season with more downs than ups in 2012.

The No 1 Ford driver scored no points at the opening round in Monte Carlo, won in Sweden, retired in Mexico, missed Argentina through injury and finally came good in Greece.

"I will be driving flat out for a win," Latvala said.

"Given the gap between myself and the top of the championship, I have to try to win every rally, both for myself and for the team's challenge for the manufacturers' title.

"The collarbone has healed very well," Latvala said. "I had surgery in Helsinki immediately after the accident and so the recovery process began immediately.

"Missing Rally Argentina was disappointing, but it was the correct decision. It allowed more time for the collarbone to heal, and at the last rally in Greece, which is the roughest round of the championship, I drove without pain."

At one of the most physically demanding rallies in the championship, Latvala was quickly on the pace over the opening stages in Greece and battled with Loeb to the end before just missing out on second.

After such a confidence-building drive, Latvala arrives in New Zealand as the defending round champion and is keen to get back on the Kiwi roads again.

"I'm confident I have the pace and I'm confident my Ford Fiesta RS WRC has the pace, so I'm really looking forward to a great battle over some of the best roads in the championship.

"I have no worries about the car. It has led every round of the WRC this season in the hands of either myself or Petter [Solberg]. We know it has the pace to win, so it's down to the drivers to make it happen."

Latvala knows he can win in New Zealand and has the weapons to do so. However, there are a number of drivers standing in his way other than Loeb.

His teammate Solberg is a former world champion (2003) and round winner in New Zealand (2004) and sits one place above Latvala in the title race.

Hirvonen will be another hurdle. Having joined Citroen this year, he is desperate to get one over Loeb after playing bridesmaid to the Frenchman three times. He is also yet to score a win on Kiwi soil. APNZ

- APNZ

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