Ford: “Solberg secures podium finish in New Zealand”

Ford World Rally Team drivers Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson claimed their fourth podium of the season when they finished third in Brother Rally New Zealand today. Driving a Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, they battled up the leaderboard after losing time early in the three-day rally and climbed to third in the FIA World Rally Championship driver standings.

Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila finished seventh in the squad’s other Fiesta RS WRC. They held a comfortable third until late in the opening leg when they dropped more than 4min 30sec after their car slid into a fence and became tangled in wire. The Finns claimed maximum bonus points for winning the final live TV Power Stage today, with Solberg taking second.

This seventh round of the 13-event season was based in the middle of the southern hemisphere’s winter. Temperatures were mild but heavy rain showers ensured tyre selection for the fast and flowing gravel speed tests around Auckland was always tricky, as teams strived to find the perfect balance between Michelin’s hard and soft compound rubber in rapidly changing conditions.

New Zealand’s smooth but heavily-cambered North Island roads are regarded as among the best in the championship. Drivers enjoyed 413.94km of competition over 22 special stages in the lush, rolling farmland as the championship celebrated its 500th round since its launch in 1973.

Solberg lost time on Friday morning when the team mistakenly opted for hard compound tyres in cool and damp conditions. The 90sec time loss dropped the 37-year-old Norwegian to seventh, but he recovered to fourth by the end of the day. Solberg moved into the top three early yesterday and was the fastest driver through the second leg, but the time gap to those ahead remained big and he eased through the final day to consolidate third.

“We came here with a good car and a big opportunity but unfortunately Friday’s mistake ended our hopes of a win,” admitted Solberg. “That was sad for the team, but a podium is still a good result. The key today was to stay calm to secure third, and taking bonus points in the Power Stage was a good ending.

“We need some luck and make sure we’re fully prepared for the next rallies to try to secure that elusive win at last. The speed of the car is fantastic and everyone in the team is pushing hard for victory, so I’m confident it will come soon,” he added.

Latvala was fastest in qualifying and after leading initially, the 27-year-old settled into third. However, his victory hopes ended late on Friday when his car hit a hole and spun into a fence. Although there was no damage, some wire became wrapped around a wheel and the car was unmoveable until the crew used some clippers to cut it free.

The incident relegated Latvala to ninth, but he climbed to eighth yesterday and moved up another place today, despite intermittent rain making conditions tricky over the seven stages covering 61.33km. With no chance of a podium, Latvala also took the opportunity to test some revised differential settings on his Fiesta RS WRC.

“Today I started to regain my speed and confidence and I’m happy to earn bonus points for winning the Power Stage,” he said. “I struggled on Friday and after my spin I focused on testing. That brought some good ideas for the next round in Finland. Looking at the points, I have no chance for the drivers’ championship now but the main thing will be to keep fighting for victory on every rally.

“It’s good that the summer break is here and I can try to relax and come back with a refreshed spirit for the second half of the season. I want to analyse everything that has happened so far this year, get rid of any negative thoughts, and move forward,” added Latvala.

Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson praised Solberg’s recovery drive. “We made a mistake with the tyres on Friday which proved expensive, but he fought back well to finish third. Of course, it’s disappointing to come away with just third, especially after Jari-Matti was fighting for a win. We have the speed from the car and drivers, but we need to put together the pieces of the jigsaw to convert our pace into victories. I’m confident we can do that in the second half of the year,” he said.

Ford Racing senior manager Gerard Quinn said: “On a weekend where tyre choice was critical and the weather made for challenging driving, I’m satisfied to finish this rally and close the first half of the season with a podium. Jari-Matti’s Power Stage win and Petter’s second place also brings valuable points in the drivers’ championship. Our team now has a six-week break before Rally Finland, in which we’ll concentrate on preparing a strong challenge for the second part of the season.”