The first big event of the New Zealand rally season has plenty of international flavour.
This weekend’s International Rally of Whangarei has attracted an entry list headed by former Asia-Pacific rally champion Gaurav Gill from India and Swedish rising star Pontus Tidemand, along with US drawcard Ken Block and leading New Zealand drivers Richard Mason and Ben Hunt.
The event is a double-header with Gill and Tidemand, driving Skoda Fabia S2000s, chasing Asia-Pacific honours with the Indian MRF Tyres team, while Block and the Kiwi drivers are competing in the New Zealand Rally Championship section of the rally.
Gill will be making his eighth consecutive start at Whangarei and will start as favourite having won the event last year. The 2013 Asia-Pacific Rally Championship winner will again be partnered by Australian co-driver Glenn Macneall.
Tidemand is making his first drive over New Zealand’s gravel rally stages and brings a reputation as one of the emerging talents in world rallying.
He became the youngest-ever winner of the Swedish Rally Championship in 2011 at the age of 21. He then burst onto the world scene by finishing third in the 2012 FIA Junior World Rally Championship before dominating the class in 2013 to secure the title.
Last year Tidemand competed in both WRC2 and the FIA World Rallycross Championship, a highlight being running within the top five overall at his home event, WRC Rally Sweden.
Gill and Tidemand will be driving Skoda Fabia S2000s.
The challenge to the Skoda pair will be led by experienced Indonesian competitor Subhan Aksa who returns to the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship after campaigns in the Production World Rally Championship and WRC2 categories. Aksa has competed in New Zealand on several occasions and is expected to be on the pace driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X.
A third Team MRF S2000 is entered for the vastly experienced New Caledonian driver Jean Louis-Leyraud.
A 33-strong entry in the New Zealand Rally Championship section of the event is headed by five-time champion Richard Mason (Masterton) in his Subaru Impreza but the star attraction of the rally is US rally, rallycross and gymkhana video series creator Ken Block.
The American has selected New Zealand for a limited 2015 rally campaign and will contest the Whangarei and Otago events in his Ford Fiesta.
Nelson’s Ben Hunt (Subaru) and Mt Maunganui’s David Holder (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8) are also leading NZRC contenders while the locally built “Maxi” cars of Coromandel’s Alex Kelsey — with his V6 mid-engined Kelsey MC2 — along with Aucklander Andrew Hawkeswood (Mazda2) and Dunedin’s Emma Gilmour (Suzuki Swift) add depth to the entry list.
Tauranga’s Phil Campbell and Aucklander Dylan Turner (both Evo9s), along with Rangiora’s Matt Summerfield (Subaru Impreza WRX) and Te Aroha drivers Graham Featherstone (Evo7) and Lance Williams (Impreza R4) are also among the leading New Zealand championship challengers.
The International Rally of Whangarei begins this evening with a show in central Whangarei where fans can meet the cars and stars up close before they attack two passes of the night-time Super Special Stage at Pohe Island.
Leg one on Saturday heads as far north as Kawakawa for a loop of four special stages (each used twice) on the fast-flowing cambered roads the region is renowned for. Sunday’s final leg heads south of Whangarei.