“I am very confident it will come back in 2018” says Kiwi ralling ace
Kiwi driver Hayden Paddon has been outspoken in his efforts to get Rally New Zealand back on the WRC calendar and believes that isn't far off from happening.
New Zealand was a regular stop of the world tour but last held a round in 2012 when the event alternated on the calendar with Rally Australia. Paddon is confident it will return to these shores in 2018.
"I have got very high hopes now," he said. "I know there has been a lot of discussion recently so I am very confident it will come back in 2018. Obviously there is still a lot of nuts and bolts to come together, including the funding side but it is certainly getting very close.
"All the teams, all the drivers and even the FIA are all in support of Rally New Zealand coming back. It certainly won't be in 2017 but 2018 is looking good."
Rallying is on the cusp of a worldwide renaissance after a decade in the sporting doldrums.
Having been a major player in world motorsport through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, rallying's popularity took a hit as a group of legendary drivers retired, the global financial crisis hit and manufacturers found other forms of motorsport more appealing to pour money into.
Paddon and co-driver Jonathan Kennard pictured at the International Rally of Whangarei earlier this year. Photo / Matthew Hansen
When Paddon was growing up in New Zealand, rallying was a big deal. The world championship stopped by every year, names like Colin McRae, Tommi Makinen, Carlos Sainz and Marcus Gronholm were at the top of the game and manufacturers like Subaru, Mitsubishi, Ford, Toyota, Peugeot, Hyundai and Citroen were all involved.
But those drivers retired and one by one the manufacturers withdrew, leaving the sport struggling for relevance. Sebastien Loeb won the world championship every year from 2004 to 2012 and completely dominated the sport, which at times had only three manufacturers contesting. New Zealand lost its place on the calendar and the WRC focused its target on the strong European region.
But in the past four years the sport has welcomed Volkswagen and Hyundai back to the world championship and will next year see a Japanese brand enter a factory team through Toyota.
"I don't think it has happened as quickly as it has appeared," Paddon said. "It has built up to this over the past three or four years with the rules and cars and next year it takes another step forward with faster, more radical-looking cars.
"With Toyota coming there will be five manufacturers and most teams will probably have three cars as well so to have 15 factory cars out on rallies is back to the heyday.
"It isn't just at WRC level, either. You go back to the national rally in New Zealand and see the new cars getting built. Rallying around the world is definitely on the up."
Such is the growth, a number of countries are lobbying for a place on the WRC calendar for 2017 and beyond - including New Zealand.
"I think that [European focus] is going to change. This year we have China in so we are up to four rallies outside of Europe.
"I also believe there are some European rallies that could be changing in the near future and there are a lot of other countries in South America and Asia bidding to try and get rallies in the WRC.
"I know the FIA want more rallies outside of Europe and I would be a big fan of that."