Domestic rally championship set for injection of new blood and new brands
The New Zealand Rally Championship is poised for a significant boost next season with around 10 new generation rally cars, a major star attraction and a wide open contest expected.
The 2016 championship was completed last weekend on the roads of the Coromandel, with Tauranga's David Holder crowned champion, and is being hailed as a huge success.
But the future looks even brighter with several new generation cars to join the five that contested this year's championship as well as circuit racing star Greg Murphy's entry into a full championship.
"Compared to three or four years ago the sport has definitely changed a lot in terms of the type of competitor and the type of car we have now," NZRC co-ordinator Blair Read tells nzherald.co.nz.
"We had effectively a two-make series with Subaru and Mitsubishi three years ago and we had two drivers who dominated the championship in Hayden Paddon, before he headed off overseas, and Richard Mason.
"Now we are in a situation where we have got close to 10 manufacturers running in four wheel drive and that has been through the addition of the new platform AP4 cars - the likes of Emma Gilmour's Suzuki, Andrew Hawkeswood's Mazda, Hayden's [Paddon] Hyundai, Glen Inkster's Skoda and Hawkeswood's older style Mazda that Brendan Reeves drove to victory on the Coromandel over the weekend. These are new look cars that almost look like the world rally cars.
"We also have a fresh group of new drivers like David Holder, who has won the championship, Ben Hunt, Matt Summerfield coming through.
"We had four different winners through the five events this year and I think close to 10 different drivers standing on the podium across those events.
"The competition has really changed."
Read believes the success Paddon has had on the world stage has had an impact locally.
"Hayden's success overseas has definitely helped rallying in New Zealand. He has taken it mainstream. You only have to watch when there is a WRC event on and Hayden is featuring on the sports new every night.
"It has reinvigorated the sport here - it has dragged spectators out to the stages. The spectator numbers are way up on previous years."
Read knows the importance of the superstar pulling power. The championship will be boosted next season with the inclusion of former V8 Supercars star Murphy, who will drive a purpose-built Holden rally car.
"That brings a real new dynamic to the championship," Read explains. "Greg has been running in a classic two wheel drive up until now but he has shown in that car the class driver that he is.
"It is going to take him a little bit to be knocking on the front-running pace but he will get there with a little bit of time. Next year will more than likely be a learning year for him.
"He will surprise some people with his pace."
Murphy will drive one of two brand new Holden cars in next year's championship and Read sees the inclusion of that manufacturer as a sign others will follow.
"That team is well underway. One of the cars is well on the way to completion - it has the roll cage work done - and the second car is going through that at the moment. They will be testing that car early next year.
"That entry of the two car Holden team is a real positive sign for the championship in that it reflects the growing interest from manufacturers locally that they can use rallying as a platform to promote their road cars.
"We expect there to be a lot of interest in Greg's entry into the championship next year." There is also talk of a number of other manufacturers wanting to get in on the action.
"There is service park talk of at least another four to five cars in the throes of final negotiation with a couple of other brands in the mix," Read says.