Kiwi rally driver Mark Tapper has travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland, for his first official engagement in the inaugural Pirelli Star Driver programme. Tapper won the Asia Pacific leg of the new World Rally Championship-based young driver competition in October last year and is now one of five of the world’s most talented and promising rally talents starting a new phase in their professional rallying careers.
Twenty-eight year old Tapper, from Brookby south of Auckland, is the oldest of the 2009 Pirelli Star Drivers, the others being Jarkko Nikara (23, Finland); Martin Semerád (18, Czech Republic); Nicos Thomas (21, Cyprus) and Jon Williams (26, South Africa).
The five drivers start their first event, Rally de Portugal, next month, but the hard work has begun in Edinburgh. After a brief welcome and introduction on Monday 2 March, the drivers got straight into fitness conditioning work before sessions on dealing with the media and career management. Later in the week they focused on the commercial side of the sport and the importance of nutrition.
The training programme, based at Edinburgh University, is managed by 2001 World Rally Champion co-driver Robert Reid and his company Elite Sports Performance. After this induction programme, Tapper will be joined by his Christchurch-based co-driver Jeff Judd as all the drivers and co-drivers gather in Pisa, Italy to start testing the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xs they will drive on six rounds of this season’s FIA World Rally Championship.
The WRC events being used by the 2009 Pirelli Star Drivers have been carefully selected by the FIA and Pirelli to offer a blend of fast and technical gravel rallies, along with one of the world’s most challenging asphalt rallies – Spain. After Rally de Portugal from 2 to 5 April, the Pirelli Star Drivers compete in Italy from 22 to 24 May, Greece from 11 to 14 June, Finland from 30 July to 2 August, Spain from 1-4 October and Great Britain from 22 to 25 October.
Four of the nominated Pirelli Star Driver rallies are also events in which drivers can earn points for the Production Car World Rally Championship (P-WRC). Tapper and Judd will also travel to Argentina at the end of April and Australia in September to contest two additional P-WRC events, and thus complete the required six P-WRC events. Other New Zealander drivers have contested P-WRC events, notably Possum Bourne in 2003 and well-known co-driver Tony Sircombe has competed in several full P-WRC campaigns with various drivers winning the championship twice as co-driver to Toshi Arai. But assuming Tapper completes his intended programme this year, he will become the first New Zealand rally driver to complete a full P-WRC rally campaign.
Amongst his eight rallies, Tapper will have further official commitments joining the other Pirelli Star Drivers for further driver development and training programmes as well as promotional activities for both the FIA and Pirelli. For the Pirelli Star Driver events, Tapper will drive one of five identical Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xs. Built to Group N (or production car) specifications, the Mitsubishi is a turbocharged, four-wheel-drive rally car, an evolution of the car used to win last season’s FIA Production Car World Rally Championship. The cars are built and maintained by Ralliart Italia with each car arriving at the start of every rally indistinguishable from the four other Pirelli-liveried Lancers.
FIA World Rally Championship Commission president (and New Zealander) Morrie Chandler said: “The Pirelli Star Driver scheme offers a fantastic opportunity for young drivers around the world; on a global basis, it is unprecedented. It will also add another dimension to each of the rallies and I see it as being one of the most eagerly anticipated elements of a fascinating season ahead.”
Background information Pirelli Star Driver World Rally Championship events
Rally de Portugal (2-5 April)
Rally d’Italia-Sardegna (21-24 May)
Acropolis Rally of Greece (11-14 June)
Rally Finland (30 July – 2 August)
Rally de España (1-4 October)
Wales Rally GB (22-25 October)
Jarkko Nikara (23, Finland), FIA European Pirelli Star Driver – Jarkko started competing in 2004. Finnish Junior Champion in 2006, he was runner-up in the Finnish Group N Championship a year later.
Martin Semerád (18, Czech Republic), FIA European Pirelli Star Driver – Martin started competing in 2007. Martin won a round of the Czech Junior Cup in 2007 and two rounds the following year, when he was runner-up in the series.
Mark Tapper (28, New Zealand), FIA Asia Pacific Pirelli Star Driver – Mark started competing in 2001. New Zealand two-wheel-drive champion in 2007, Mark won five from six rallies to take the title.
Nicos Thomas (21, Cyprus), FIA Middle East Pirelli Star Driver – Nicos started competing in 2006. He contested the Cyprus Rally Championship the following year and won the Cyprus Rally in 2008.
Jon Williams (26, South Africa), FIA African Pirelli Star Driver – Jon started competing in 2003. Jon collected his first outright rally win in the second season of his rally career, he has topped the podium four times since.
Background to the Pirelli Star Driver programme
When the FIA awarded Pirelli the tender to run the World Rally Championship’s control tyre for 2008, 2009 and 2010, one of the key areas the FIA wanted to work in association with Pirelli on was a global young driver development programme. In its 31-year history, the Drivers’ World Rally Championship has never been won by anybody from outside of Europe.
In instigating the Pirelli Star Driver scheme, the FIA is seeking to offer young drivers from across the world an equal opportunity to make it to the top of the sport. The five Pirelli Star Drivers were selected from four FIA Regional Rally Championships: Africa (Williams), Asia Pacific (Tapper), two from Europe (Nikara and Semerád) and the Middle East (Thomas). The selection process was conducted by each individual FIA region. Included in the FIA European selection process were drivers from the North and Central America (NACAM and Codasur) regions.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director said: “Pirelli has always firmly believed in rallying and in motor sport in general, as it gives us a life-sized outdoor test bench. It is our commitment to put something back into the sport even when economic conditions are hard, so naturally we are delighted to wholeheartedly support this initiative to promote deserving young drivers.”