Can the pack catch Paddon in South Canterbury?
The lightning-fast gravel roads of South Canterbury provide the best chance yet for the chasing pack to challenge Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship leader Hayden Paddon.
Paddon, the ex-WRC star, has gone two from two so far this season with wins at Otago and Whangarei in his Hyundai New Zealand i20 AP4 and could mathematically wrap up the championship this weekend.
But the chasing pack will be going all-out on roads that reward commitment and bravery as well as biting whenever a competitor over-does it.
Fresh off victory at the non-championship Rally Canterbury, youngster Robbie Stokes will be well-suited to the South Canterbury challenge in his Stokes Motorsport Ford Fiesta AP4.
His out-right pace appears to be the next best behind Paddon and over a shorter rally distance – this being the first of the one-day rounds – could be ready to attack if Paddon slips up anywhere.
Ben Hunt took a stage off Paddon here two years ago and found form at Whangarei in the Hydraulink Subaru.
Josh Marson finds himself second in the standings despite mechanical dramas at both Otago and Whangarei in the RDL Holden Barina. His increase in speed leaves many pondering what may have been possible without those hiccups and what he could be capable of with a clean run this weekend.
Matt Summerfield (Andrew Simms Mitsubishi Mirage), Raana Horan (Generator Rental Services Skoda), Kingsley Jones (Auckland Denture Clinic Skoda) and Emma Gilmour (Vantage Suzuki) have all demonstrated good speed at times through the season so far but will be hoping to put it altogether for a top result.
Asia Pacific Championship regular Mike Young makes his NZRC season debut in the ex-Dylan Thompson Subaru Impreza and could be someone to keep an eye on once familiar with the car.
Phil Campbell returns to the championship in the Roofing Store Ford Fiesta while Todd Bawden is likely to dominate category 1A and could trouble the top contenders in his older model Mitsubishi.
2WD combatants Ari Pettigrew (BMW) and Marcus van Klink (Mazda) will go at it again. Dylan Thomson starts as favourite in the FIA Group N 2WD class and a four-way battle between Shane Murland, Jeff Judd, Anthony Jones and John Silcock awaits in Historic 2WD.
A strong field in the Rally Challenge class will make for an exciting weekend.
The rally begins with a ceremonial opening in downtown Timaru on Friday night before a full day of stages that take competitors out to the service park in Fairlie before finishing the day at Levels Raceway with a super special stage on tarmac.