Where will World Rally Championship be held in NZ?
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The press release headline read; "WRC is back". New Zealand’s long anticipated return to the World Rally Championship was confirmed late on Friday night.
The date, September 3-6 2020, positions New Zealand as the tenth of 14 rallies on a significantly re-jigged WRC calendar.
Japan and a modernised version of Kenya’s Safari Rally are also returning next year while it’s the French round in Corsica along with Spain and Australia that have missed the cut.
The new calendar and comments from both the WRC promotor and the FIA suggest that event rotation will become part of future calendar decisions. And very shortly after the 2020 calendar was released Rally Australia officials issued a press release saying it was included on the draft calendar for 2021.
Now that Kiwi rally fans have had a couple of days to celebrate, it’s worth considering what a modern WRC event on New Zealand roads might look like.
New Zealand most recently hosted the WRC in 2012 when Frenchman Sebastien Loeb claimed his third victory on Kiwi roads. The rally has been run twice since as a national event with Hayden Paddon taking victory on both occasions.
Two years ago, there were plans for a Tauranga-based WRC event and a mooted return to the demanding Motu stage near Opotiki.
With significant funding for the 2020 rally coming from the ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development) agency, I’m expecting the Rally New Zealand route to have a closer focus on the Auckland region than has been the case in previous years.
A good place to start when considering the route options is to look back at the last WRC Rally of New Zealand. The 2012 event was typical of the era with 414km of special stage competition.
Next year’s rally will be shorter - in the vicinity of three-quarters of the stage distance that was contested in 2012.
Most rallies on the 2019 WRC calendar offer about 310-320km of competition with the tarmac Monte Carlo, Corsica and Germany events being a little longer. So, expect a shorter Rally of New Zealand in 2020 – at the most with about 330km of special stages.
The opening day in 2012 went to Raglan and Te Akau with a remote service at the Raglan airfield. There was 209km of competition that day but some of the Te Akau roads have been sealed since then.
Repeating the route of the 2018 Raglan Coast national event would give about 172km of competition - more than half of the distance needed for the 2020 event. And the rugged Whaanga Coast road provides postcard scenery for the worldwide TV audience.
Where would be remaining 140-160km be found? The modern WRC format is for 35-60km of Sunday rallying so if Friday turns out to be a long day near Raglan it leaves about 100km of stages needed for the Saturday.
The 2012 event headed as far north as a service at Whangarei on Saturday. That seems an unlikely destination with a reduced stage distance required in 2020 and if a "Rally New Zealand route to have a closer focus on the Auckland regionremote’’ service is part of the Raglan leg.
Something similar to the final day of 2012 - that was based to the north near Puhoi - is feasible or the rally could move back to roads in the Port Waikato area that were last used in 2010.
There’s an intriguing possibility that could take rally competitors into some new terrain. About 15 years ago a provisional itinerary for Rally New Zealand included a special stage called Mangatawhiri.
It wasn’t used on the rally but the stage would have raced through roads in Auckland’s Hunua catchment area. And from there it’s only a short hop across to the Maramarua Forest.
Stages in that locality - or even closer to the city in the Whitford Forest – might be included in the 2020 route to provide an increased Auckland focus.
Another modern rally requirement is a Sunday ``Power Stage’’ suitable for live TV and not requiring a long touring stage to the ceremonial finish. In 2012 the Burnside-Wech Access Rd near Makarau provided a 7.3km Power Stage contest.
And away from high-speed gravel competition an Auckland-based event will need a service park location that minimises the chance of the rally being delayed by motorway congestion.