Double helping of rally action in April
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New Zealand's second double-serving of April rally action takes place this weekend on the fast and flowing gravel roads of Northland.
The International Rally of Whangarei follows the double-header of NZ Rally Championship action and the international classic rally spectacle that kicked off the 2017 season at Otago this month.
The three-day Whangarei event is the opening round of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship as well as round two of the domestic series.There is more competition in the APRC and an expansion of the line-up of new AP4 cars contesting the New Zealand championship.
The established benchmark in the APRC series is India's MRF Tyres squad that runs its programme in conjunction with Skoda Motorsport.
The team has won at Whangarei since 2012 and this year 2016 winner and reigning APRC champion Gaurav Gill (India) is being joined by Norway's Ole Christian Veiby in the pair of Skoda Fabia R5 cars. Veiby, 20, finished runner-up in the 2015 Junior WRC, fourth last season and is fifth in the WRC2 category in 2017.
The added depth in the APRC this year brings a potential challenge to the MRF team from the Swedish Mpart operation.
Mpart is using the series to showcase the new Mitsubishi Mirage it has developed -- a car built to the FIA R5 regulations that has not received official homologation status but can be used in regional events.
There are two Mpart Mirage R5s entered this weekend, with Finland's Jari Ketomaa and Sweden's Robert Blomberg. Ketomaa has competed in New Zealand three times with a best finish of eighth overall and SWRC class success at Rally New Zealand in 2010.
The other APRC international entries are PG Abhilash (India) and Fuyuhiko Takahashi (Japan), both driving Group N Subaru WRX machinery.
The NZRC element of the Whangarei event sees all the leading contenders from the series opener at Otago returning to action, either looking to consolidate their Otago performances or gain points after first-round problems.
Defending national champion David Holder (Mt Maunganui) is the series leader and gets his second chance to drive Hayden Paddon's Hyundai i20 AP4+ car on the Northland roads.
Holder leads the NZRC standings with 41 points from Andrew Hawkeswood (Mazda2) with 33 and Te Aroha's Graham Featherstone (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7) on 26.
There are 54 crews entered in the national event with two new cars in the line-up of AP4 cars.
Auckland's Dylan Turner is set to debut his new Audi S1 this weekend and the Holden Barina AP4 effort expands to two cars as Christchurch driver Josh Marston is joined by four-time Bathurst 1000 winner Greg Murphy, who will making his first rally start in a 4WD turbo car after several years in classic machinery.
The rally includes 16 special stages and 260km of competitive driving.
Following starting ceremony formalities, there are two Friday evening runs through the 1km Pohe Island Super Special stage to kick off the action.
On Saturday, the route takes the crews as far north as Opua with two runs through a loop of four stages split by a return to Whangarei and the service park at Toll Stadium at 11.55am.
Sunday's itinerary is two loops (of three stages) in the Waipu district with a return to the service park at 10.10am. The finish ceremony at Whangarei's Quayside Town is at 3pm.
Standings after round 1 of 6
1. David Holder (Mt Maunganui) Hyundai i20 AP4, 41pts
2. Andrew Hawkeswood (Auckland) Mazda2 AP4, 33pts
3. Graham Featherstone (Te Aroha) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, 26pts
4. Rhys Gardner (Balclutha) Mazda2 AP4, 25pts
5. Sloan Cox (Rotorua) Mitsubishi Lancer EvoX, 19pts
6. Ben Hunt (Auckland) Subaru WRX STI, 18pts.