Big names head south for Rally Championship challenge
A star studded entry heads to the rolling hills and forest tracks of the Drivesouth Rally of Otago next weekend for the second round of the 2015 Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship. Headlining the entry are round one winner American Rally Superstar Ken Block, current championship leader Ben Hunt, and New Zealands own World Rally Championship driver Hayden Paddon who will contest the Classic division of the event. The two day event contested over 280 kilometers of special stages is famous for its smooth fast roads punctuated by daunting crests and twisting bends.
American Rally & Rallycross star Block, who is contesting the first two rounds of the Championship in the Hoonigan Racing Division Ford Fiesta, is aiming for a repeat of his victory at Rally Whangarei three weeks ago. “I’m going to try and repeat the win. The Ford Fiesta worked really well on the Whangarei roads, so I’m looking forward to it,” stated the American rally star.
Block also recognises the different format of the Otago event, with only a one-pass reconnaissance of the stages (as opposed to two at Whangarei), puts him at a small disadvantage to local crews with prior knowledge of the event. “It’s missing a pass of recce that I would really like. I struggled with the notes at Whangarei and being able to commit 100% so we will have to do some review of the video after recce to be comfortable.”
Heading the challenge of the local drivers to the American Rally Star is current championship points leader Ben Hunt. Hunt and co-driver Tony Rawstorn from Nelson are seeded first of the local crews in their Subaru Impreza and looking to consolidate on their early season lead. “It’s important to come out of the first two rounds with a good haul of points so we will be focusing on our own event and trying to stay up the front. I really enjoy the forest stages in particular, maybe it’s from growing up in the south, but I really thrive on the forest stages,” stated Hunt.
With defending champions Richard and Sara Mason absent from the starting list, the 2015 title chase is wide open with a number of drivers in contention for their first championship. 23 year old Canterbury Subaru driver Matt Summerfield is currently second in the championship after a fast and consistent run at Whangarei, while Tauranga Mitsubishi driver Phil Campbell, in only his second season in the outright four wheel drive class is third. Auckland’s Dylan Turner (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) and Te Aroha’s Graeme Featherstone complete the top 5 championship positions heading into round two.
Alex Kelsey, Andrew Hawkeswood and Emma Gilmour all showed great pace at the opening round but were halted by mechanical issues so will be looking to get their championships back on track in the south. Coromandel’s Alex Kesley with his spectacular Mad Creation 2, lead the opening round initially before a clutch issue, Andrew Hawkeswood was running consistently in the top five stage times before an off road excursion in his Mazda 2, whilst Dunedin’s Emma Gilmour will be looking to show the speed of her Suzuki Swift Maxi on home roads. Gilmour was second for most of last year’s Otago rally behind eventual winner Richard Mason, so expect a strong showing from the Dunedin driver.
Heading the class battles in the National Championship will be Hawkes Bay driver Max Bayley and his 2WD Ford Fiesta. Bayley in only his second season of National competition has regularly been knocking on the door of the top 10 overall positions demonstrating huge talent. A strong entry in the Gull Rally Challenge 4WD Class is headed by defending champion Darren Galbraith from Timaru, while experienced Christchurch driver Deane Buist heads the 2WD Challenge field.
Adding to the spectacle and always a major drawcard of the Otago event is the Stadium Cars/Ssangyong International Classic Rally held in conjunction with the NZ Championship round. Current Hyundai World Rally Championship driver and 2013 National Champion, Hayden Paddon will take a break from his international rally program to contest the Classic Rally at the wheel of the Stadium Finance BDA. New Zealand rally fans will line the stages to see Paddon in action against Scotsman Alistair McRae who will pilot a Ford Escort and current leader of the Classic division of the National Championship, Marcus Van Klink in his potent Group B Mazda RX7.
With two legs of competition and at least a dozen drivers capable of outright victory, the Otago Rally is again set to provide an exciting weekend of competition for the challengers in the 2015 Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship.
This year’s Drivesouth Rally of Otago commences with a Rally Show and Ceremonial Start in Dunedin’s Octagon on Friday evening before heading north to the Palmerston and MacRaes flat areas on Saturday for eight gravel public road stages. The always popular tarmac Super Special stage with four laps of a city block concludes the day’s action, before a further seven stages on Sunday including the events signature stage Kuri Bush, a 15 kilometer rollercoaster of huge crests and flowing bends that reward the brave. The victory celebrations will be held from 4.40pm on Sunday afternoon outside the Dunedin Railway Station for those who master the Southern challenge.
The Drivesouth Rally Otago provides great spectator viewing opportunities with a number of Spectator vantage points. A rally map is available free to download from the event website www.otagorally.net, or it can be collected from rally headquarters at The Southern Cross Hotel, High Street Dunedin. Spectators are reminded to follow the instructions of marshals and ensure they stand well clear of the road’s edge – inside the taped off viewing areas.
Visit www.otagorally.com for all the event information
Photos: Geoff Ridder