Jari-Matti Latvala claimed victory in New Zealand two seasons ago in a dramatic finish when two key rivals hit trouble on the final stage.
The Finn triumphed for the factory Ford team despite failing to set a single fastest stage time. Based on his penchant for stage bests this season, the 27-year-old will be one of the favourites for victory on the Brother-backed event in his Fiesta RS WRC.
However, a host of drivers will be out to stop him, not least Latvala’s Ford team-mate Petter Solberg, who won in New Zealand in 2004 and has come close to winning several times in recent seasons, including 2010 when he crashed on the last stage.
The formidable Sebastien Loeb will head Citroen’s challenge, eager to make up for the spate of uncharacteristic errors that cost him a shot at victory two years ago. With a 30-point lead over team-mate Mikko Hirvonen - who suffered a heavy crash in pre-event testing - at the top of the WRC standings, victory in his DS3 WRC isn’t essential for the Frenchman’s pursuit of a staggering ninth world title but will doubtless remain a clear target.
Aside from the main factory teams, Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tanak will be out to impress for the M-Sport Ford squad, while Thierry Neuville - who like Tanak is competing in New Zealand for the first time - will be desperate to make the most of the opportunity handed to him by the Qatar World Rally Team with a strong result.
The young Belgian wasn’t due to compete in New Zealand but has been called up to deputise for Nasser Al-Attiyah, who is busy training for the London Olympic Games where he will represent his country in the skeet shooting event.
Much is expected of Jari Ketomaa in his DMACK-supported Fiesta. The Finn won the SWRC section of Rally New Zealand in 2010 and has a strong record on smooth gravel rallies.
The return of Manfred Stohl, in his eponymous preparation company’s Brazil World Rally Team Fiesta, is an intriguing prospect. The Austrian, filling the seat normally occupied by Daniel Oliveira, last took part on a world championship rally in December 2007 but he has remained match fit by contesting rounds of his national series, albeit in a gas powered Group N Mitsubishi Lancer.
MINI’s challenge in New Zealand is boosted by the return of Dani Sordo and the Prodrive WRC Team. Spaniard Sordo demonstrated the potential of the latest-specification John Cooper Works WRC by winning the Vodafone Rally de Portugal Power Stage back in April. And Prodrive chiefs are confident that the former works Citroen pilot can land a podium.
In addition to the single entry from Prodrive, Armindo Araujo and Paulo Nobre will represent WRC Team MINI Portugal and will be determined to hit back from troubled outings in Greece when they both failed to finish despite their best efforts.
Ken Block completes the World Rally Car contingent in New Zealand and will create a fanfare of interest. The Gymkhana star is a YouTube sensation, while more than two million people follow him on Facebook. The American is also highly capable behind the wheel and will be hoping to capitalise on his previous Rally New Zealand experience on what is only his second start in this year’s WRC for the Monster World Rally Team.
Visit WRC.com next week to find out who will be chasing Super 2000 and Production Car world championship success in New Zealand.
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