Shattering Start for Stobart’s Wilson
Stobart M-Sport Ford’s Matthew Wilson/Scott Martin got off to a flying start for the 40th edition of Rally New Zealand recording the second fastest stage time in the morning’s opening loop. Team-mates Henning Solberg/Ilka Minor made steady progress in their Ford Focus RS WRC, finishing in eighth position after completing nine lengthy stages comprising of 159.18km.

This year’s Rally New Zealand, the longest running World Championship event in the Southern Hemisphere, returns to its base in Auckland after an absence of four years. The move has enabled rally organisers to reintroduce fast, flowing stages from 2005’s rally alongside four brand new stages comprising of mixed gravel and tarmac road surfaces.

The move from the previous base in Hamilton has created a new service park at Queen’s Wharf, situated in the heart of New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland. Several WRC drivers embraced the move back to the City of Sails in the days leading up the rally, competing in an America’s Cup Boat Race followed by a bungee jump from Auckland’s Harbour Bridge. On Thursday evening, thousands of enthusiastic fans flocked to the city’s picturesque harbour to watch the rally’s official ceremonial start.

The opening leg of the fifth round of the WRC started in dry, humid conditions and saw fifty-six competitors venture north to the Whangareri and Kaipara regions for a series of eight fast stages along flowing gravel roads. Mild temperatures and a severe lack of rainfall meant that stages were dusty with a thick layer of gravel – this held an early disadvantage for front running drivers who were forced to ‘sweep’ loose gravel from the stage.

Matthew Wilson took full advantage of his road position and finished SS2 second-fastest, just 1.2 seconds behind leader Sebastien Ogier. The 23-year-old continued to make steady progress into the rally’s longest 32.56km stage until his door glass shattered half way through the test. This failed to have any major impact and Wilson completed the stage fifth-fastest. At the end of SS3 just 16.9 seconds separated the top seven drivers and Wilson was 1.3 seconds off claiming fifth position.

During SS4, Wilson reported issues with the dust due to the missing window but the Stobart crews’ took advantage of Loeb hitting a bridge in the 22.20km gravel stage and the Cumbrian squads moved up into sixth and seventh position as they pulled into the midday remote service at Whangerai.

At the midday service, Solberg reported handbrake problems and his co-driver, Ilka Minor noted problems with the back rear diff. However, the short 15 minute service made it difficult for any problems to be addressed thoroughly and the afternoon loop kicked off with a brand new stage, Springfield, comprising of 9.87km with a final finish on tarmac.

Wilson continued to made steady progress throughout the afternoon’s stages but during SS8 problems were reported with the Ford Focus RS WRC’s gearbox. This cost the young driver valuable time and the gap between Mikko Hirvonen lying in fifth position and Wilson extended to 20.4 seconds at the end of SS8. The day ended with a Super Special Stage of 1.5km set on tarmac which took place at the Auckland Domain.

Tomorrow’s stages will be based south of Auckland, in the Franklin and Northern Waikato region with parts of the tests used in 2006, 2007 and 2008’s rally and a repeat loop of a new 4.68km Super Special Stage set on tarmac at Hampton Downs. The Stobart team’s Ford Focus RS WRC’s will look to take advantage of the durable Pirelli Scorpion tyre to enhance their positions in the second day of Rally New Zealand.

Other Rally News:
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team are well placed with Jari-Matti Latvala finishing the opening day of Rally New Zealand in second position and Mikko Hirvonen in fifth position.

The Citroen Rally Team made steady progress with Sebastien Ogier finishing in third position and Dani Sordo lying in fourth. Sebastien Loeb is currently in seventh position after losing time from hitting a bridge in SS4.

Munchi’s Ford World Rally Team driver Federico Villagra reported handling issues in today’s opening leg, finishing in 11th position.

Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
“Everything felt good on the opening stages until the window shattered on the third stage. I was a bit slower on the final stage in the morning mainly because we had so much dust coming through the windows. The main problem at the lunchtime service was the window but this was sorted at the remote service and held well for the rest of the day. The afternoon went well apart from the problems with the gearbox during the last stage and for the Super Special. I’m pleased overall with my performance today. ”

Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
“The stages were as we expected but I struggled to find the right rhythm today. I was having problems with my handbrake during the morning’s stages and the rear of the car kept coming round – I lost my confidence. In the afternoon everything was a little better but I lost a lot of time today. I hope to do better in the tests tomorrow.”

Leaderboard after SS9
1. P Solberg/P Mills NOR Citroen C4 1h35m51.3s
2. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Focus RS +1.4s
3. S Ogier/J Ingrassa FRA Citroen C4 +3.9s
4. D Sordo/M Marti ESP Citroen C4 +8.7s
5. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS +20.2s
6. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Focus RS +1m09.7s
7. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen C4 +1m19.8s
8. H Solberg/I Minor NOR Ford Focus RS +1m45.3s
9. J Ketomaa/M Stenberg FIN Ford Fiesta S2000 +4m18.0s
10. X Pons/J Tomanek ESP Ford Fiesta S2000 +4m40.5s

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