Hayden Paddon starts as Rally Whangarei favourite
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The gravel roads of Northland will challenge a small but varied rally field chasing Asia Pacific and New Zealand championship success this weekend.
The ENEOS International Rally of Whangarei features 277km of special stages with 20 crews contesting the international segment of the event. There are drivers from Australia, Italy, Japan and New Caledonia.
WRC star Hayden Paddon (Wanaka) will start as a clear favourite in his Hyundai i20 AP4. Paddon won the season-opening Otago Rally last month by a margin of more than eight minutes to establish an early lead in the New Zealand Rally Championship over 2015 champion Ben Hunt (Subaru).
The Whangarei event is a hit-out for Paddon ahead of a return to the WRC with Hyundai Motorsport for the next three events in Portugal, Sardinia and Finland.
There’s a change of co-driver for Paddon this weekend as regular pace-note caller John Kennard has had hip surgery; Malcolm Peden steps into the role. The notable missing element from the Asia Pacific series this year is India’s MRF Tyres Team, which has supported the regional series for more than a decade with Indian driver Gaurav Gill and a succession of European rising stars.
In the absence of the MRF squad, Japan’s Cusco Racing becomes the main force in the Asia Pacific contest with a new Toyota Vitz (Yaris) developed to the AP4 regulations.
The new Toyota will give New Zealander Mike Young a strong chance at claiming the 2018 Asia Pacific title. He is teamed in the Cusco operation by Yuya Sumiyama (Japan) in the team’s Skoda Fabia R5 car that is being used as a benchmark for the AP4 development.
Joining the Cusco duo in the APRC portion of the Whangarei event are Fabio Frisiero in a Peugeot 208 AP4 — the Italian has been a regular competitor in New Zealand and Australia WRC events — and Japan’s Fuyuhiko Takahashi in a Subaru Impreza WRX STI.
The strongest opposition to Paddon will be the same array of Kiwi talent that appeared at Otago and the notable addition of Australian champion Nathan Quinn.
Quinn has significant international experience and the Neil Allport Motorsport-prepared Ford Fiesta R5 should be a strong contender on the Northland roads having shown pace on New Zealand roads when Max Bayley drove it last year. The most likely scenario is for the Aussie champ to display a pace that slots him somewhere between Paddon and the rest of the NZRC field.
The local part of the field is led by Ben Hunt in his Subaru WRX STI production car and the AP4 entries of Matt Summerfield (Mitsubishi), Dylan Turner (Audi), Rhys Gardner (Mazda) and Josh Marston (Holden).
International flavour is provided deeper in the field by Australia-based Irish driver Richie Dalton in a Ford Fiesta Proto and New Caledonian veteran Jean-Louis Leyraud in a Skoda Fabia S2000.
The national category of the event boasting a further 33 crews — including a number of the NZRC contenders — is headed by Emma Gilmour in her Suzuki Swift. She starts ahead of former national champ Geof Argyle (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8).
The rally opens with back-to-back runs through the 1km Pohe Island super special stage in Whangarei on Friday evening.
A further 16 gravel stages follow — eight on Saturday looping north to Kawakawa and eight more on Sunday as the rally route travels southeast towards Waipu and Maungakaramea.
2018 New Zealand Rally Championship Standings (round 1 of 6)
1 Hayden Paddon (Wanaka) Hyundai AP444 points
2 Ben Hunt (Auckland) Subaru36
3 Matt Summerfield (Rangiora) Mitsubishi AP428
4 Graham Featherstone (Te Aroha) Mitsubishi22
5 Josh Marston (Christchurch) Holden AP421