New Zealand may not have featured on the World Rally Championship calendar for the last 10 years, but it is still an event that’s engrained in the brain.
Whether they’ve been there or not, drivers hold New Zealand in high regard, and that’s primarily down to its stages.
There aren’t many more dramatic stage locations for a WRC event, with its fast, flowing gravel tests littered with immensely photographic oceanic and forest backdrops.
It’s a rally that sticks in the memory, much like Finland.
Rally Finland has long been regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rally in the world. And that’s down to its ridiculously fast stages, with cars flying down the route usually just inches away from a rally-ending tree.
But while many drivers regard the Finnish stages as the best in the world to drive, one Finn believes that New Zealand’s roads are even better.
“I would say as a driver they are probably even better than in Finland,” Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala explained to DirtFish. “But the atmosphere is not the same as in Finland.
“The best atmosphere of the whole World Rally Championship is in Finland, and one thing New Zealand is missing is the jumps.
“But other than that the road characteristics are even nicer because you have a lot of camber, natural camber on the road, it’s a bit like dancing with the car on the roads.”
It’s that camber that really excites the drivers. Heading into a corner, that camber begs you to just go that little bit faster, and then faster again. It gives you a sense of confidence that you can take more and more speed, pushing both driver and car to the absolute limit.
And it’s that very feeling that makes the New Zealand stages so pleasurable to drive for Latvala.
“It is a nice feeling. You feel more the G force in your body because that element, that the corner – let’s say in my notes there’s left five – you have the camber which you can use, you could almost go like two gears higher.
“If it’s a corner which you should be going through in third, if the camber and the road are wide you can actually attack that almost like a fifth gear [corner]. So this makes it really exciting.”
But while it is exciting to drive, it’s not to say it doesn’t bite. Being encouraged to take the corners harder can mean you end up heading in too hot, and finding yourself quickly in trouble.
“Yes and then getting back there is difficult,” Latvala quips in his conversation with David Evans when he mentions that you can end up in a ditch in no time.
“And also there are these places in New Zealand where it narrows, you have a wide road but suddenly it gets narrow and you have a big bank outside and you then have no space to run wide.
“You remember in the past when Richard Burns was fighting with Grönholm, he went wide, he hit the bank and immediately he started to roll in the Peugeot when they were fighting for the championship.”
Only three of this year’s crop of Rally1 drivers have taken part in Rally New Zealand before – Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville and Sébastien Ogier. For the rest, it will be a trip into the unknown.
Heading into the rally with zero experience will no doubt leave some feeling slightly apprehensive about their chances, but that’s not something on Gus Greensmith’s mind.
Competing on the New Zealand stages has been on his bucket list for years, and he’s itching to get his first real taste of the Kiwi gravel.
“I went on holiday there six years ago; I know it’s a beautiful country because we drove up to the bay of islands at the top of New Zealand,” said the M-Sport driver.
“So I’ve seen a couple of normal roads and they look pretty epic.
“It’s the one on the top of the bucket list that I finally get to tick off, so very excited for that.”
Whatever the result, it will be an experience Greensmith will never forget.
And if Latvala thinks the stages are better than his home event, then those heading on to the stages for the first time are in for a real treat.