Paddon, Horan in shoot-out for 2023 title
Hayden Paddon will chase his seventh national championship while Raana Horan is poised to pick up the spoils if the WRC rally winner has any problems this weekend in the Bay of Plenty.
Paddon holds a commanding 14-point lead in the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship and needs only to finish the Battery Town Rally Bay of Plenty in seventh place or better to secure an unprecedented seventh title.
Paddon has not put a foot wrong all season – he missed Rally South Canterbury due to his European Championship commitments to give the chasing bunch a chance of overhauling him – and is poised to complete arguably the finest season in championship history should he stay true to form on Sunday.
The Hyundai New Zealand i20 Rally 2 driver is in career best form and it would be a major surprise if he were to run into problems at Bay of Plenty.
But rallying can be a fickle sport and Horan has put together a superb season himself, maximising point scoring at each round to remain in the title Hunt going into the final day of the season.
The Generator Rental Services Skoda Fabia Rally 2 driver would realistically need Paddon to experience problems to claim a maiden title.
Horan has proven to be the best of the rest and is guaranteed a second-place finish at worst.
Supercars star and three-time Bathurst winner Shane van Gisbergen (Giltrap/LJ Hooker Audi A1 AP4) and two-time national champion Ben Hunt (Skoda New Zealand Fabia Rally 2) have no championship situation to consider and are more than capable of challenging at the pointy end of the field.
The 4WD category is boosted with the return of Jack Hawkeswood (Force Motorsport Toyota Yaris AP4), Haydn Mackenzie (Albany Toyota Yaris AP4) and Mike Young (Toyota Yaris AP4) as well as a resurgent Todd Bawden (Online Contractors Ford Fiesta Rally 2).
Defending champion Dylan Thomson (Ford Fiesta Rally 4) has one hand on the NZRC 2WD and overall 2WD championships and really only needs to finish the event to secure both titles.
Jackson Clendon (Ford Fiesta Rally 4) should challenge him for the rally win while the likes of Bryn Jones (Ford Fiesta Rally 4) and Charlie Evans (Honda Civic) will challenge him in his class this weekend.
Dan Haines (Ford Escort) is basically assured of the Open 2WD title but will battle local driver JP van der Meys (Ford Fiesta) for the rally win.
John Silcock (Mazda RX7) wrapped up the Historic 2WD championship at Daybreaker Rally three weeks ago but remains in the overall 2WD battle with Thomson and co.
The head-to-head battle between Rally Challenge 4WD champion Jeff Ward (Subaru WRX) and youngster Zeal Jones (Subaru WRX) should be a feature of the event.
Ward carries a narrow three-point margin into the event but this one could come down to the wire.
Dave Strong (Ford Fiesta) and title sponsor Brian Green (Mitsubishi EVO 9) will make the class battle entertaining this weekend.
The Rally Challenge 2WD battle is a dead heat heading into the rally with Jared Parker (Toyota Corolla) and Brett Maddren (Toyota Starlet) locked together on the table. It is quite clearly a shoot-out between the two for the title.
Fast Bay of Plenty based driver Jono Shapley (Toyota Vitz) waits in the wings if the two lead contenders run into problems.
The event begins with a ceremonial opening in Whakatane on Saturday before a full day of action on gravel roads across the region before finishing back in Mt Maunganui late in the day.