Defending Rally New Zealand winner Petter Solberg hopes to complete a hat trick of WRC victories this weekend, but the Subaru star will be hampered by his starting position and the detuned engine the team used for the 2005-spec Impreza's first rally in Mexico.
Defending Rally New Zealand winner Petter Solberg hopes to complete a hat trick of WRC victories this weekend, but the Subaru star will be hampered by his starting position and the detuned engine the team used for the 2005-spec Impreza’s first rally in Mexico.
Solberg claimed the lead of the world rally championship by following up his win in Sweden with a victory in Mexico, and will therefore be the first competitor to contest Friday's opening stages. Given the high-speed nature of the gravel stages, which consist of a hard base covered by a loose layer of pebbles, sand and dust, the Norwegian is likely to lose significant time while he “sweeps” the road for his rivals. By contrast, Sébastien Loeb and Marcus Gronholm will be starting fourth and fifth after poor starts to the season.
"New Zealand will be a difficult rally for me," said Solberg, who won the event for the first time last year. "I think I'll lose a little bit of time on the first day as I sweep the loose gravel roads clean for those behind, but hopefully I'll be able to get it back on legs two and three. Everything is possible, so we'll just have to wait and see."
Subaru boss David Lapworth said the team opted for a conservative, de-tuned powerplant at the high-altitude Mexican Rally, and under new rules for this year, will use the same unit this weekend. However, Subaru could re-map the engine to give more power and torque (at the potential cost of reliability) if necessary.
"The new car felt good in Mexico," Solberg said. "Not perfect, but very good. Throughout the event, the team worked hard to improve the set-up so I could get more feeling and, after the second day, I was much happier. There are still some improvements to be made and we're always making lots of adjustments that can make a difference to the overall experience inside the car, so it's looking good."
Lapworth summed up his team’s expectations: "From a championship point of view, we know we should be happy to come away from New Zealand with perhaps six points and the lead, or something close to the lead, in the drivers' standings.
He added: "On the other hand, we go to an event to win, so if we're lucky with the weather and we don't lose too much time on the first day, then no doubt Petter will change his strategy. Chris (Atkinson) completed the event last year in a Group N car, so he has some experience, but it's limited compared to the top drivers. He'll be learning more about the rally, the tyres and the set-up of a World Rally Car rather than thinking about where he's going to finish."