Debut P-WRC victory for Prokop in New Zealand
Czech driver Martin Prokop and co-driver Jan Tománek (Mitsubishi) scored the first victory of their P-WRC career on the sixth round of the 2008 FIA Production Car World Rally Championship, Repco Rally New Zealand. Patrik Sandell (S), the only other driver along with Prokop to be contesting both the P-WRC and J-WRC this year, scored his third podium of the season for second, 36.2secs adrift. Martin Rauam (EE, Mitsubishi) took the final podium spot in his Mitsubishi Lancer EvoIX. In the P-WRC standings Andreas Aigner (A, Mitsubishi) still holds onto his lead with 30 points, but Juho Hänninen (FIN, Mitsubishi) has reduced his deficit to just four points. Jari Ketomaa (FIN, Subaru) and Sandell hold 23 and 22 points respectively so with two rallies left, all four drivers are still in the fight for the P-WRC title.

Many expected New Zealand to be a battle of the P-WRC-leading heavyweights Aigner and Hänninen who between them have won every P-WRC round so far this season, but it ended up full of surprises. Fumio Nutahara (J, Mitsubishi) won the first stage but Mirco Baldacci (RSM, Mitsubishi) soon stamped his mark on the event by setting a storming time on the next stage which saw the San Marino driver take the lead. He defended his lead, despite a fierce charge from Nutahara and Prokop behind, until an off road excursion on SS10 on day two. This resulted in Baldacci being stuck by the side of the road and eventually retiring. He relinquished his lead to the Czech driver who was ready to pounce. By that point Prokop had built a comfortable margin over his remaining rivals and was able to ease off a little to reduce the risk of an accident or mistake, as he claimed the P-WRC win.

Seventeen year-old rally talent Evgeniy Novikov (RUS, Mitsubishi), who had spent much of the first two days in third, hit Nutahara’s car on SS8 as it partially blocked the stage, which started a run of gearbox problems. The Russian briefly flirted with second by SS10, but gearbox troubles on SS11 caused his retirement, and second was taken over by Sandell.

The Swede, who normally drives a Peugeot 207 S2000 in the P-WRC, spent much of day one familiarising himself with his Lancer Evo IX and day two went so well for him that he made up seven places on the leaderboard, to reach second.

Rauam had a difficult first day, getting stuck in dust for 20km on SS1, costing 30 seconds, and losing another 15 seconds with a spin 15km into SS4.1. He continued into day two with another spin on SS8, losing 15 seconds and his concentration. But by SS11 his rhythm was back and his reward was third place. A spin on SS13 didn’t put the Estonian off and he defended his podium spot.

Entered into the event by the organisers, Hayden Paddon (NZ, Mitsubishi) struggled with learning his new Pirellis to start with but compared to many, he had an almost trouble-free run on his third WRC event to score a well-deserved five points for fourth, just 29.5secs behind Rauam. At 21 years old, he is also the youngest ever winner of the New Zealand Rally Championship, which he also clinched on this event.

Hänninen dropped to 15th on the first stage of the rally after he went into a ditch which caused some front right damage. He stopped on the road section to make repairs but his late arrival at the next stage cost him penalties and pulled him down to 19th. The Finn suffered a few spins on day two but with the Championship title in mind and his main rival – Aigner – now retired, he fought hard and won all but one of the stages to power his way back up to seventh by the end of the day. He continued in style on day three winning all the day’s stages proper, to pass Ketomaa to finish in fifth.

Ketomaa struggled with a damaged brake calliper on SS1, causing a few handling issues, although things improved in the afternoon. But day two was a different story as he approached a high speed corner too fast, hit a bank and rolled his Impreza just a few hundred metres before the finish which cost 30 seconds and caused rear axle and bodywork damage. He took a 50-second penalty leaving service late, although some of his problems were still not fixed. But needing the experience of the Kiwi roads, he was happy to reach the finish in sixth.

Bernardo Sousa (P, Mitsubishi) had a difficult start to his first outing in New Zealand as he spun twice on SS1 which cost a minute in total. But other than being ‘a bit rusty’ having not driven for a while and learning the surface, he had a relatively trouble-free rally and was happy to score two points for his seventh place. He now heads to Austria for a longawaited operation on an old shoulder injury, to recover in time for Wales Rally GB, the final round of the series.

Stewart Taylor (NZ, Mitsubishi), who was driving for the Orion World Rally Team, had some handling problems on SS2.2 and his steering column broke five kilometres into SS4.2 which also dented his concentration. He hit a bank on SS8 and struggled with confidence on day two as a result. Unfortunately he hit a bank on SS13 on the final day while lying in fifth, but it cost five minutes and three positions, so he scooped up the final point for eighth.

Driving for the Gaboko Rally Team, two-time Chinese champion Liu Cao Dong (CN, Subaru) made a good start on his first competitive outing at a WRC event. Other than familiarising himself with the regulation Pirelli tyres, the 23 year-old ran almost without problems, choosing to take time to learn the stages and steadily improve his times. Fading brakes was his only concern on the final day before finishing a well-deserved ninth.

Spyros Pavlides (CY, Subaru) struggled on day one as a small accident left him with only two wheel-drive and cost quite a lot of time. The afternoon improved on day one but other than ‘a few scary moments’ throughout the rest of the event the Cypriot driver finished without problems in 10th.

Gianluca Linari (I, Subaru) lost a minute going off the road on SS2.1, although it caused no damage. But a crash on SS11 bent the rear left wheel and cost the Italian 40 seconds on his first outing in New Zealand. He had a couple of spins on the tricky SS13 before finishing in 11th.

Armindo Araujo (P, Mitsubishi) broke his gearbox 8km into the first stage of the event so he incurred a whopping 35 minutes of penalties for not contesting the rest of the day’s stage, and dropped to 20th. He restarted for day two and by the end of the day the excitable Portuguese driver said it was the first time this year that his car has felt really good, after a heavy summer testing schedule. He suffered a couple of spins on the final day and eventually finished in 12th.

Ken Block’s (USA, Subaru) second outing in New Zealand started badly as he went off the road just 3.3km into the first stage, damaging the rear right suspension of his Impreza and also took on board a huge total of penalties. He restarted for day two and tried to gain confidence but struggled to find a good rhythm. By the end of day two he had experienced engine and gearbox problems and had knocked his rear right wheel out of line. But he battled on to finish in 13th.

Another driver who had a difficult event was Subhan Aksa (RI, Mitsubishi). With only a couple of spectators on hand, it took 13 minutes to rejoin the road after a slow roll on SS1. The 21 year-old Indonesian continued for the rest of the group of stages but a damaged head gasket saw him stop for the day by the midday service, to allow enough time for repairs. He took time to regain his confidence and then struggled as, with no possibility of overtaking, he kept getting stuck behind the car in front of him. A spin on the tricky SS13 cost time again and he eventually finished 14th.

Indian competitor Naren Kumar (Subaru) had a small off-road excursion 13km into SS1 causing a puncture and a damaged suspension which cost 1min 30secs. He struggled through the rest of the group of stages with the damage and then lost the use of his brakes on SS4.2. But he saw the event as a big learning experience but unfortunately a broken gearbox early on the final day, whilst he was lying in ninth, forced him into retirement.

Driving for the QMMF team, Misfer Al-Marri (QAT, Subaru) had a trouble-free run on the opening day of the rally, although by the superspecial stage (SS5), his engine was only firing on three cylinders. With an aim to stay on the road he continued steadily to gain experience but an off road excursion on SS13 caused a small fire, damaging the car beyond repair. Al-Marri replaced regular P-WRC contender Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT) who won the FIA Baja title just moments before the start of Rally New Zealand, which in turn he achieved off the back of competing in the Olympic Skeet Shooting in Beijing, in which he finished 15th.

After his great start to the event, 2006 P-WRC runner-up Nutahara eventually stopped and partially blocked SS8 but a knock by passing Novikov pushed him onto his roof. He restarted for the final day but another off road excursion on SS12 caused too much damage to continue.

Also entered into the event by the organisers, Chris West (NZ, Mitsubishi) had a difficult rally as a broken steering wheel on SS2.2 saw him amazingly drive the last few kilometres just using the nuts and bolts from the steering column. Normally driving on Yokohama’s, he spent the first day familiarising himself with the P-WRC regulation Pirelli tyres but a roll early on day two cost him about 23 minutes. He managed to continue but was held up after catching the car in front by the end of the day. Unfortunately a large stone on the first stage of the final day damaged the propshaft and saw him retire.

Giorgio Bacco’s (I, Subaru) rally didn’t start well as he had a spin on each of SS1 and SS2.2 costing 30 seconds in total and he then hit a rock on SS4.2 which damaged the radiator and he finished the stage having lost much of his water. He restarted for day two but unfortunately an accident on 12km into SS8 saw him taken to hospital for precautionary checks after hitting his head, despite there being minimal damage to the car.

P-WRC standings leader Andreas Aigner (A, Mitsubishi) had a dreadful first day as a front right puncture just five kilometres into SS1 cost three minutes to change. Then he went into a ditch later in the same stage causing another puncture costing a bit more time. He worked his way from 20th back to 11th but an off-road excursion on SS10 caused too much damage to continue.

Another difficult rally for Toshi Arai (J, Subaru) saw him get stuck behind Aigner on SS1 for 10km and he went off the road, hit a pole and damaged the front bumper. But the Japanese hit a branch on SS4.1 which damaged his radiator beyond repair, ultimately causing his retirement.

Evgeniy Vertunov (RUS, Subaru) had an unfortunate rally as he rolled on a fifth gear section at 150 kph, just a few kilometres before the end of SS2.1. Fortunately the crew were unhurt but the car was too badly damaged to continue.

1st – Martin Prokop, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX:
“It’s wonderful to win in P-WRC – in a 4 wheel-drive car as the other times I have won is only in a 2 wheel-drive, so it’s really good for me. I didn’t really push too much from the start, it’s more that others made mistakes and then once Mirco [Baldacci] went off I slowed down a bit to not take risks, especially as today’s stages were quite tricky and it was easy to make a mistake.”

2nd – Patrik Sandell, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX:
“It’s been a good weekend and it’s amazing to score a third second-place in three different cars [Renault Clio S1600, Peugeot 206 S2000, Mitsubishi Lancer] – I’m really happy! I’m lucky that I was able to get used to the car quickly and it got better and better stage after stage once I found a good rhythm – lots of fun! These are also very good points for the Championship, now I can fight for a podium finish in the P-WRC and J-WRC standings!”

3rd – Martin Rauam, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX:
“This third place feels even better than the second place in Greece because we had to fight for it – in Greece it fell into our hands. I’m very satisfied with my performance as I feel that my pace is now much closer to the top guys. Also the car is really competitive and now we’ve driven four rallies with the same car without any problems. Big thanks to the team and to my father especially.”

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