From Ben Mulkern [ 30/09/2002 ].
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The splintered Ford Rallye squad has arrived on the North Island of New Zealand as the WRC begins it's annual antipodean adventure - however, the blue oval crews are far from settled with the team blown apart following Colin McRae's departure to Citroen. In the immediate aftermath of the Scot's loss team supremo Martin Whittaker made brave statements that 2003 will be about nurturing the team's young guns, which presumably means that Carlos Sainz will also be jettisoned to achieve a lower wage bill. The team takes Francois Duval along just for recce experience, and this is the first time that Markko will contest the NZ event, so there's some quick learning to be done.
Extraordinarily, Markko Märtin has scored points in the drivers’ championship on each of the last six rounds and remains the only driver in the championship with a 100% finishing record. That is a run he would love to extend in New Zealand. “It won’t be easy to score points on my first visit there but I would like to keep this sequence going,” added the 26-year-old Estonian.
Ford’s drivers generally hope it will be plain sailing for them and their Focus RS World Rally Cars during an event voted the best in the championship in 2001. The smooth, flowing, gravel speed tests ease their way through lush green countryside, posing few mechanical demands on cars and encouraging competitors to attack them. The drivers rate the special stages as the finest of the season and it is said the best performers will always shine on such perfect roads.
As such Ford Rallye Sport would appear to have the strongest line-up, boasting seven victories in the past 12 years. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya have four wins to their credit, in 1990, ’91, ’92 and ’98 while Colin McRae scored his maiden world rally success in 1993 and went on to win in the following two seasons as well. In contrast, Markko Märtin and Michael Park will start the event for the first time.
“The roads in New Zealand are the best in the world from a driver’s view,” said 40-year-old Sainz. “They’re flat and smooth and we don’t have to worry about rocks damaging the cars. It’s usually down to pure speed because we can drive flat out from the start. The Focus RS is a good car on gravel so I’m confident of a strong result.
“The only difficulty will arise if the weather is dry. In those conditions there’s quite a lot of loose gravel on the road surface and those drivers at the head of the starting order will have a disadvantage,” added Sainz.
McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist are also big fans of the rally. “Not surprisingly, I’ve got pretty good memories of New Zealand,” said McRae. “It’s one of my favourite rallies. We drive on nice, smooth roads and it’s an event where flat out consistency usually wins. There’s no real unpredictability to the stages and the cars have an easy time there.
“After the last two rallies on asphalt, I’m happy we’re moving back to gravel. I enjoy all the last three rounds and although winning a world rally now is harder than it ever was due to the increased competition, I think we start with a good chance of victory in all three,” added the 34-year-old Scot.