Solberg soars to fourth in dramatic climax to Rally New Zealand
Petter Solberg and Phil Mills finished the 38th running of Rally New Zealand in fourth position overall after a dramatic re-shake of the leaderboard on the rally’s penultimate stage. The Whaanga Coast test was the most beautiful of the rally, skirting the Pacific Ocean, but proved a bitter femme fatale for three of the leaders as the competition at the front raged to a nail-biting conclusion.

The final day of Repco Rally New Zealand was a short, sharp affair, but was far and away the most dramatic and spectacular of the rally. Before a final running of the Mystery Creek spectator stage, four full-length speed tests took the crews west towards the surfers’ paradise of Raglan. A combination of intense pressure and the fast and unforgiving rock-strewn roads of the penultimate Whaanga Coast stage gave the event an unexpected sting in the tail that turned the leaderboard on its head in remarkable fashion.

As the dusty gravel roads became cleaner and grippier with each passing car, Petter Solberg and Phil Mills made the most of their starting position of seventh on the road to set some much improved times. The duo slipped into sixth place overall after the first stage, and as the battle at the front intensified in the closing kilometres, Solberg and Mills kept strong heads and conquered the Whaanga demon to leap into fourth position by the day’s end.

“Rally New Zealand last year produced the closest WRC finish in recent years, and this year we have seen yet again an incredible twist on the final day” said David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal. “Petter and Phil did a solid job in what was a much more positive day for us. Their efforts were rewarded with a last-minute leap to fourth position, which goes some way to consoling what has overall been a tough weekend for the team. Chris similarly upped his pace this morning which was encouraging and we’ve certainly learned a lot from the testing he has carried out over the last couple of days.”

“It’s been a tough rally for us but fourth place is good after this weekend” said Petter Solberg. “What an incredible finish, the Whaanga stage was like a scrap yard! Today the car felt the best it has this weekend, so we are definitely making steps in the right direction but it’s taking a little time. Of course, we are here for winning though so we have some more steps to take, but we have to lift our heads now and keep working so we can start to fight at the front.”

Atkinson and Prévot started the day well, going second fastest on the opening stage, but their improved form was unfortunately not to last. Missing the afternoon’s excitement, the duo were forced into retirement having demonstrated more competitive pace until they nudged a bank on the inside of a corner and damaged their radiator. They were brought to a standstill 21.3 kilometres into the stage as a result of overheating, and the pair were unable to re-start their engine.

“Ok, this weekend has been tough for us, especially after our third position on the last gravel rally in Finland” said Chris Atkinson. “It’s disappointing that we had to retire today. We were testing some suspension components, and under braking the car slid straight on and we nosed into a bank and damaged the radiator, so that was it. Now we have a little gap to look at what we can do ahead of Spain.”

The Subaru Impreza WRC2008 is still in its infancy in the championship, and although its sense of belonging makes it easy to accept already as a series long-termer, New Zealand is only the fifth rally for the car.

Next event
The World Rally Championship heads to Spain next for Rally Catalunya Costa Daurada, round 12 of the series. The penultimate asphalt rally of the year, it will be the second tarmac rally for the new Impreza WRC2008. A flat-out blast through the fast and flowing mountain stages of Tarragona, Catalunya is the quickest asphalt rally of the year and also the most similar to a circuit race, characterised by wide smooth roads and sweeping corners. The event is based in the coastal resort town of Salou, further south along the coastline from Barcelona in the Tarragona region. The service park is based in the PortAventura holiday theme park, though eighteen stages and 353.62 kilometres of competition won't give the drivers much time to enjoy the roller-coasters.

Final Leaderboard
1. S Loeb/D Elena +3h58m48.9s
2. D Sordo/M Marti +17.5s
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen +41.5s
4. P Solberg/P Mills +2m48.9s
5. U Aava/K Sikk +3m30.7s
6. P-G Andersson/J Andersson +7m37.4s
7. T Gardemeister/T Tuominen +7m54.9s
8. F Villagra/J Perez Companc +8m35.0s
9. H Solberg/C Menkerud +9m15.2s
10. M Prokop/J Tomanek +13m49.0s

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