WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Frenchman Sebastian Loeb’s close loss to Marcus Gronholm in last year’s Rally of New Zealand has spurred the world championship leader’s determination to go one better in the 2008 rally starting Friday.
Finnish-born Gronholm’s winning margin of three tenths of a second last year was the smallest in championship history and prevented Loeb from repeating his 2005 win at New Zealand.
“We missed out on victory last year by just three-tenths of a second after one of the most thrilling fights the WRC has ever seen,” Loeb said. “I won’t be able to take revenge this time though, because Marcus Gronholm isn’t competing any more.”
Loeb said New Zealand had become one of his favorites races since competed here in 2002.
“The lush green backdrop to the stages is magnificent,” he said. “The stages are fast and technically demanding, but the cars don’t suffer. From the driving point of view, it’s certainly one of my favorite events.”
As championship leader, Loeb will start first on Friday’s stages, a possible disadvantage because of the loose gravel which is swept from the road by the earliest starters.
“How big a handicap that turns out to be will depend on how damp the conditions are,” Loeb said. “There are quite a few stages that we will only contest once, so we potentially stand to lose quite a lot of time. That said, the fact that we will be first on the road on day one means that we are on top in the championship, and we intend to do all we can to defend that lead.”
The Rally of New Zealand offers Ford and Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen of Finland a chance to regain the lead in the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships, conceded to Loeb and Citroen in the last round at Germany.
Hirvonen trails Loeb by four points on drivers’ standings after 10 rallies and Ford trails Citroen by eight points on manufacturers’ standings.
Hirvonen said the New Zealand rally should suit Ford’s all-Finnish team.
“The roads in New Zealand have a good rhythm to them and they are so smooth that there’s no need to worry about damaging the car on rocks,” Hirvonen said.
“The engine improvements on the new car that we debuted in Germany have made a difference,” he added. “The tight regulations mean it’s not possible to make big steps forward, but the engine response has definitely improved. Everything happens a little faster than it did so I hope that will benefit us in New Zealand also.”