New Zealand’s best rally drivers have gone from the top of the North Island to near the bottom of the South Island for round two of the New Zealand Rally Championship.
A top-notch field, including international American star Ken Block, is taking on the gravel roads of Otago over the weekend. New Zealand international driver and works Hyundai Motorsport team member Hayden Paddon will contest the rally’s classic division in a 40-year-old Ford Escort.
Paddon is back home after a fraught WRC round in Argentina, where he and co-driver John Kennard had the misfortune of running off the road and hitting spectators, injuring six. All have recovered, and after Otago Paddon goes to Rally Portugal in two weeks.
Block won the opening round of the NZRC and is looking for a repeat performance in Otago before going back overseas. He and co-driver Alex Gelsomino are contesting only two rounds of the national series and are not taking any championship points.
Two of New Zealand’s best rally drivers, Richard Mason and Emma Gilmour, didn’t have the best of weekends last time out. Mason was unable to make the Whangarei event, and Gilmour had mechanical problems.
That left the door open for Ben Hunt and co-driver Tony Rawston to finish runner-up to Block and they now lead the series from Matt Summerfield and Phil Campbell.
“Obviously we had a pretty good rally at Whangarei,” said Hunt. “We had a few issues with the car, though, which we had to sort out before this weekend.
“The boys have done a great job on the engine and it’ll be a lot better than it was.
“We had blocked injectors and were down on power, meaning I had to drive the car quite hard to get good stage times. Ironing out all the little things will make a big difference.
“It’s a really good car so we should be okay. The roads are a bit different down here and there’s something a bit special about Dunedin.
“The rally course is a mix of public and forestry roads.
“There’s everything from the really fast to the twisty — it’s one of the favourite ones we go to.” Several front-runners fell over during the Whangarei rally, including Gilmour, Alex Kelsey and Andrew Hawkeswood, and they will all be looking to get their tilt at a national title back on track.
Gilmour will be hoping her Suzuki Swift-based car is on song as this is her home event, and the three-time NZRC runner-up would dearly love to finally win the national title.
“The Otago rally is probably my favourite as I get a lot of home support,” she said. “The roads are fantastic and it’s a good event.
“It was a bit disappointing at Whangarei. To be fair, the car did the rally without fault, it was an alternator wire that broke. To me that’s nothing to do with the development of the car. That’s just motorsport and the car showed really good speed.
“Our pace was good at the start of the season and we can only get quicker as the season goes on.
“The buzz you get down here is fantastic because of the high speed and the crests you come across.”
Max Bayley leads the 2WD class in only his second season of national competition and has been knocking on the door of the top 10 overall positions. Defending 4WD class champion Darren Galbraith is back, as is Deane Buist who heads the 2WD Challenge field.
In the International Classic Rally Paddon is joined by Scotsman Alistair McRae, in a Ford Escort, and the current leader of the Classic division of the national championship, Marcus Van Klink, in his Group B Mazda RX7.