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Rossi trades asphalt for New Zealand gravel

india Updated: Nov 15, 2006 16:49 IST

MotoGP ace Valentino Rossi trades smooth asphalt for New Zealand gravel this weekend when he competes in the penultimate round of the world rally championship.

The charismatic Italian, driving a privately-entered Subaru with his familiar racing number 46 on the side, will be a talking point of an otherwise low-key event in the Waikato region around Hamilton.

With Frenchman Sebastien Loeb having already won the title, Rossi brings a touch of glamour in his latest shift from two wheels to four after testing a Mercedes touring car last week and a Ferrari F1 car earlier in the year.

It will be the 27-year-old Yamaha rider's second appearance in the world rally championship -- he competed in Britain in 2002 in a Grifone-prepared Peugeot 205 but failed to progress beyond the first day.

"I want to understand how the car works and my potential in rallying and make the finish," he told reporters on arrival.

"But I want to have fun and enjoy myself."

Loeb, who collected his third title in a row after last month's Australian round -- despite being at home on the other side of the world at the time -- will be present but not as a competitor.

The Frenchman has not raced since he fell and broke his arm in a cycling accident in September but clinched the title when sole rival Marcus Gronholm of Finland finished fifth in Perth.

He is still hoping to be back behind the wheel at the season-ending British Rally in December.


The Kronos Racing Citroen driver has made the long trip to New Zealand anyway, to celebrate with his team but most importantly to take part in the pre-race reconnaissance so that he knows what to expect in 2007.

Year 2006 event has moved 150km south from its previous base around Auckland, with only four of the 17 stages carried over from last year.

While the drivers' title is decided, the manufacturers' championship remains open with Gronholm's Ford team 16 points clear of Kronos and needing to score three points more than their rivals to wrap it up.

"Of course I would like to win the rally," Gronholm said.

"But my priority has to be scoring good points for the team in the manufacturers' championship. Maybe I can do both. I have to be more careful than I was on the last rally in Australia when I crashed."

Team mate Mikko Hirvonen, a first time winner in Australia, is eager to repeat the feat.

Subaru's Petter Solberg, winner in New Zealand in 2004, celebrates his 32nd birthday on Saturday and is still looking for his first win of the season.

"I'm very confident about New Zealand, because it has always been a good rally for us in the past," the Norwegian former champion said.

"We were strong in Australia and hopefully can improve a little bit more on that. I'm really hoping to win again soon, but we have to take things step-by-step."