Well I'm sure you are all well aware of the outcome of Rally Argentina, a weekend that I will forever remember! But it doesn't only stand out as it was our first WRC victory, but also because of the fashion of how we won the rally - going to head to head with triple world champion, Sébastien Ogier.
It was what I would sum up as a perfect weekend from start to finish - winning Shakedown, winning five stages, winning the power stage and of course the outright event by 14 seconds.
Going into the weekend, we were playing down our chances, as the traditionally rough roads and challenging conditions have not been a favourite in the past. However after the pre-event recce, it became clear that 75% of the new stages this year were a lot faster than normal, and with Sunday as an exception, the stages were also smoother.
Adding to this, Shakedown went very well. As we did not test prior to this event (our team mates both did testing in Europe between Mexico and Argentina which we opted to miss in turn for more testing for the European events) - we used the first run to run the same setup as we finished Mexico as a base. After a return to service, we bolted on the new suspension, which had different settings and immediately we went fastest on the second and third runs - the car was feeling and working better.
But even after all this, we remained grounded for the weekend ahead, with the same goal in mind - to have a clean rally and a top 5.
As the rally panned out, it became clear that the speed was there, even when we were not having a perfect stage, or I made some small mistakes. We were consistently in or around the top 3 on every stage! But it was close, it was a 3 way tussle between Seb Ogier, Jari Matti Latvala and us, and even on the repeat run of stages when conditions were more equal for us all, we were able to hold our own.
This rally also introduced me a lot more to mental games, both with others and myself. In any elite sport, mind games are a part of the game and while I was on the receiving end a couple of times, it only amped me up to dig deeper and make sure we were not beaten.
Two of Saturday's stages were my favourite of the rally, and on the first loop on Saturday morning we had a big push, winning both stages - closing the gap to leader Jari to 6 seconds and extending the gap behind to Seb to 30 seconds. Unfortunately for Jari he crashed out of the lead in the afternoon, which I felt very sorry for him - and put us in the unexpected position of leading a WRC event going into the final day by 30 seconds from the world champ.
Overnight we were feeling relaxed. The team did an amazing job effectively rebuilding the car to make it brand new again in the 45-minute service and now the job was down to John and I. While 30 seconds sounds like a lot to some, for 3 stages totalling 54km I was nervous overnight that it wasn't enough. The stages were much more twisty and technical than the rest of the rally, and last year on El Condor alone (1 pass), we lost 20 seconds to Seb.
To make it even more challenging, when we started the first pass of El Condor on Sunday morning, the low cloud had blanketed the top half of the stage in the thickest fog I have ever driven in. You literally could not see past the bonnet and as an indication of how bad it was, in the first 8km of the stage, we were 1 minute slower than what we were on the repeated run with no fog. Despite two mistakes in hairpins at the bottom of the hill including stalling the engine, we were relieved to had only lost 7 seconds.
The following stage was the roughest and toughest of the entire championship. However, the relief from the previous stage was about to turn to disbelief, as after a good clean stage (but not pushing as trying to look after the car) I was amazed that we had lost 20 seconds and now only had a 2 second gap going into the final stage.
So it all boiled down to 1 stage and after the altercation I had had the previous night with Seb, there was no way I wanted to be beaten. Having come this far in the rally to fall over at the last hurdle - it was not an option. So the accumulation of work I had done with Gilbert Enoka (mental coach) helped me to reset, stay in the moment and focus on the ultimate performance and not focus on the outcome. This coupled with the work Ole-Martin Lundefaret (driving analysis) and I had done on El Condor stage over the past 3 weeks. Breaking it down meter-by-meter meant we were prepared for what seemed like a mountain to climb. It was ironic that El Condor was the stage that we identified as my weak link before the event and focused on this one stage for my general driving technique.
When the green light flashed on the start line of the final stage, we drove the stage of our life. Historically this is the slow, technical sort of stage I would struggle with, but something clicked and it was an almost perfect stage. As at the time it was ANZAC day in New Zealand, maybe it was a bit of the fighting ANZAC spirit that pulled us through.
Crossing the finish line, we were not aware of Seb's time and if we had done enough. When we then saw the timing board at the stage end, first we did not believe the time we saw, as not only did we bet Seb's time, but by a massive 11 seconds. There was a moment when John and I looked at each and said 'surely not'? Confirmation from the media, and the rest is history. The emotion, the relief, the happiness and the proudness for the team cannot be summed up in words.
While this has been a long road and a dream, there is still a lot further to go. But the most memorable images from the weekend for me are not from the stages, or our reaction at the stage end. It is seeing the teams' reaction at service park, every single team member of Hyundai Motorsport jumping for joy and cheering. This is a huge team effort and the amount of passion and time that has gone into this new car and entire project is mind blowing. This is a team I'm incredibly proud to be part of and I know there is a lot more to come yet.
Its also amazing and humbling just how much support we get from you and everyone in NZ. Knowing that Kiwis are up in the middle of the morning watching the live TV broadcast just makes you want to give that little bit extra! So thank you and we apologize for any additional nerves we caused after the heavy time loss on stage 17.
This is a special moment for us and it is too hard to thank everyone, but there are hundreds of people that have directly helped to make this dream possible. I cannot put into words how much that means. To have Katie, Dad and other key NZ supporters here with us to share this with was amazing and they have all played a huge role along with my engineer Rui and of course John in the silly seat.
No time to rest or celebrate though, straight in a plane back to NZ to compete in this weekends Rally Whangarei back in the Hyundai NZ rally car. After arriving in NZ on Wednesday, we have a busy day or media and PR commitments, followed by Rally Whangarei recce on Thursday and the rally starting Friday. It will be a good way to relax by driving on the best rally roads in the world and the best way to soothe over the rally blues from this weekend.
Thank you again for being a part of this journey and we are now working hard and looking forward to more in the future.