Packed field set for NZ Rally Championship season opener
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The balance of power in Kiwi rallying appears to have shifted south as the 2018 New Zealand Rally Championship begins in Dunedin this weekend.
There is a 115-strong entry for the season-opening Otago Rally with 55 of those crews registered for the multiple categories of the six-round New Zealand Championship.
Increased southern focus in 2018 includes the addition of a new South Canterbury winter event in late-June which has balanced the six-round calendar with three rallies in each island. And the depth of talent favours the South Island with a top-20 seeding list comprising 11 South Island drivers along with seven from the north plus two international entries.
Hyundai WRC star Hayden Paddon (Wanaka) is the top seed and clear favourite teamed with longtime co-driver John Kennard in the Hyundai i20 AP4 car that has been fully rebuilt and further developed over the summer.
With Auckland’s Andrew Hawkeswood opting not to defend the title he clinched in November, the number two position on the Otago seeding list belongs to Rangiora’s Matt Summerfield.
Runner-up in the championship last year, Summerfield warmed up with a Westland Rally win in his Subaru Impreza last month and has now confirmed a championship programme driving the Ralliart NZ-prepared Mitsubishi Mirage AP4 car in which he won the 2016 Tauranga Rally and Ashley Forest Rallysprint.
2017 runner-up Matt Summerfield will contest this year's New Zealand Rally Championship in the Ralliart NZ Mitsubishi Mirage AP4. Photo / Greg Henderson
Auckland’s Ben Hunt — the 2015 national champion — is the leading driver with a production-based car with his Subaru WRX and has been seeded at three while Dunedin driver Rhys Gardner (Mazda2 AP4) and Australian-based Irishman Richie Dalton driving a Proto-spec Ford Fiesta complete the top five.
Auckland’s Dylan Turner (Audi S1 AP4), Mitsubishi drivers Richard Galbraith (Timaru) and Graham Featherstone (Te Aroha) along with Dunedin’s Emma Gilmour (Suzuki Swift AP4) and Christchurch driver Josh Marston (Holden Barina AP4) round out the top-10.
A couple of new AP4 cars are being prepared for the season with former champion Brian Stokes (Waikuku) set to debut a new Ford Fiesta AP4 while another Fiesta to be campaigned by Tauranga’s Phil Campbell hasn’t been finished in time to make the start this weekend.
Along with Hawkeswood’s absence there are several drivers who figured during 2017 but haven’t entered the 2018 season opener. They include 2016 champion David Holder (Mt Maunganui) who is contesting the Junior WRC along with Rotorua’s Sloan Cox who is pursuing an international rallycross opportunity and young Hawke’s Bay driver Max Bayley who showed some promising pace at the end of the season.
Running alongside the national event is the Otago International Classic Rally with WRC driver Mads Ostberg (Norway), Welshman Merion Evans and quick Australian Stewart Reid lining up with Ford Escort R1800s. The local front-runners include Escort drivers Regan Ross (Kaikoura) and Derek Ayson (Gore) while Mazda RX7 driver John Silcock (Rangiora) and a Group A-style Volkswagen Golf GTi to be campaigned by Deane Buist (Christchurch) add some variety to the classic battle.
The rally begins with a ceremonial start in the Octagon on Friday evening and the Saturday competition is based at Lake Waihola with stages on the Taieri coast. On Sunday the rally heads further north to Palmerston and Middlemarch for a further eight fast and flowing stages.