Famous Stages: New Zealand’s magic Motu Road – Part 2
Many of the sport’s leading players were asked to give their thoughts on New Zealand’s most famous stage – the Motu Road. Following are some of those recollections.
Cody Crocker (multiple Australian and Asia-Pacific Rally Champion)
Note: Cody was the stage winner back in 2006. In extremely wet and difficult conditions, he set a time of 41 minutes 03 seconds.
“I was lucky enough to have a chance to tackle the Motu in 2006 while running in Rally Rotorua with Les Walkden Rallying. This was my first attempt at the APRC and my first time rallying around Rotorua.
This stage stands out for many reasons, one of which is that it’s one of the few stages around the world where there are almost two pages of pacenotes per kilometre – normally it’s around one page per kilometre. With an average speed around 70 km/h, my co-driver, Ben Atkinson, had his work cut out – he read a page of notes every 20 seconds or so!
On recce we were allowed two passes and all seemed well, our notes were good, the river crossing was one metre wide, 10cm deep and the sun was out. Rain between Thursday recce and the actual stage on Saturday morning meant that a 50 metre wide lake had appeared where there was meant to be a trickle of water in a dip.
We got through unscathed and managed to set a good time and were able to break the 70km/h average speed barrier.
I remember heading into the stage and as we headed up hill, every corner seemed tighter than the previous, our notes started with lots of 8s and 9s (5th gear corners), then became 7s and 6s, then eventually down to 2s and 1s, incredibly tight and narrow. Add to that plenty of drops and unforgiving rock faces sticking out at you, and you knew that one step out of line and you were toast.
There’s small comfort from the reflector posts poised between the edge of the road and the big drop on the other side. It was hard to know which posts to cut, because some were plastic and others were timber. I think the plastic ones were replacements after the likes of Colin McRae and Possum Bourne had made their paths through the stage.
Like many New Zealand roads, the cambers and high grip levels make driving rewarding, but what sets the Motu apart is that everything is combined into the one stage. It’s 40km of reasons why you go rallying, and it’s hard to beat the feeling of coming out the other side knowing you’ve completed one of the world’s most amazing rally stages.”
Tony Sircombe (international co-driver)
“The name still sits with respect when I hear or read the name Motu. My journeys up and down the road from 1989 through 1995 during Rally New Zealand are relative good memories, considering the epic challenge the road presents to teams. Only once did I get to watch the rest of the rally pass by, when Rod Millen and I DNF’ed on Motu 1 in 1990 with turbo failure.
During the lead up to any rally, recce gave you a good idea on how you will attack a stage, but Motu was quite different from most and always stood out as a possible turning point in the rally. Colin McRae used this stage to stamp his place in Rally New Zealand history with some incredible stage times.
Recce for Motu was a huge task as the return journey down the Waioeka Road made just one pass through the stage about a three hour trip. With the early rallies we had open recce, which to Rod and I meant a minimum of four passes, to Possum it was more like seven!
Some of you may have seen the clip of an in-car video from 1995 of Possum and I. That year I had 80 pages of notes for the 45km stage. I barely had a moment to take a breath and would need to physically and mentally prepare for the challenge of 39 minutes of intense concentration. Back then a couple of bottles of Lucozade helped me get into the frame! To make it more of a challenge that year, we run Motu up in the morning and down in the afternoon….
There was always big unanswered questions going through your head on the start line of Motu in those days prior to gravel crews and mobile phones (not that you got any cell coverage in there!). Thoughts of how deep the water would be at the ford, and therefore how fast to hit it, was the road wet and thus slippery, would there be ice at the top of the ridge or in the shade?
Rod Millen and I ended way up a bank because of an icy road just before you get to the top, which spoiled an incredible run up to that point. I was able to get out and push us back onto the road, so not all was lost. I remember bracing myself into my seat as we raced down the hill, making up for lost time from the top, with no belts. The drop offs coming down that part of the road to the finish are endless, which didn’t make for a comfortable ride on my part.”
Peter Whitten, RallySport Magazine
“As iconic as the Col de Turini in Monte Carlo and Ouninpohja in Finland, New Zealand’s Motu stage conjures up memories of some of the best rally drivers in the world, on the best rally roads in the world.
Aside from Colin McRae’s dominance of the stage, my favourite memory of the Motu comes from 1994 when the great Ari Vatanen was driving the Ford Escort RS Cosworth. While Colin McRae dominated the stage, Vatanen had the power steering fail on his Escort, and had to drive the majority of the stage unassisted, and the strain was clearly evident.
Typically, it was a freezing cold morning as we waited at the end of the marathon 44.80km stage, but as the Flying Finn arrived at the finish control, it was clear that everything was not well inside the Escort.
The windows had begun to fog up, and as Ari opened the door to talk to journalists, I can clearly remember the steam rising from his steaming driving gloves as he battled to catch his breath and recover from what must surely have been a superhuman effort. Ari’s time was slow, but his effort to get the car to finish control rates, in my mind, just as impressively as Colin’s.
Later that day I drove the stage in a hire car, marvelling at the number of corners and the unique camber of the road. After heavy rain, just keeping the hire car on the road was a challenge – I could only imagine what it must have been like at speed.
Eventually, we reached the mid-stage water splash where we were eagerly awaiting the second running of the stage, only for it to be cancelled because the road conditions had deteriorated so much since the morning’s running of the Motu.
My own efforts in the hire car had, it seemed, been almost as impressive as those of Ari and Colin – at least in my mind …..”
Ross Meekings (leading Kiwi driver in the 80s and 90s)
“I have many stories of the Motu, most of them from recce as back in the 80s and 90s there was no limit on how many times you could drive the stage. I remember one year driving my wife’s little KE25 Corolla on recce with my co-driver, and Marty Roestenburg was sitting in the back seat doing his own notes as his co-driver wasn’t able to make recce. We would drive through the Motu, turn around, drive back through the stage in reverse to the start, turn around and do another notes run.
My most memorable story of Motu though would be from 1993 Rally NZ. We had a 100% finish rate on Rally NZ and were looking for our ninth successive finish. We were running the Toyota Celica and Toyota NZ had supplied our team some new injectors from Toyota Team Europe for the event, but we never had the chance to properly re-tune the engine. The car was using unbelievable amounts of fuel, like a litre per kilometre. Luckily back in those days, before service parks, we were able to service before every stage right up until the control area, and were filling the car to get through stages.
We filled the car before Motu and knowing we had an issue, treated it gently. We had a 3.9 diff so were mostly using first gear in the twisty stuff, and with 10km to go the car just coughed to a stop. There was absolutely nothing around, but I was determined we were going to keep our 100% finish rate, so set off up the stage on foot, running to find some gas, desperate to find a helicopter, tractor, anything to get some fuel from.
After a while I came across Paddy Davidson on the side of a road with a broken gearbox and he had some gas. I was kind of hoping he had said no, as I now had to run all the way back to the car. I remember a fellow Hamilton crew, Mike Simmonds and Alan Glen, going past as I was running back and they later said how they came around the corner to see a guy in a red race suit, red faced and with a red gas can running down the road.
I made it back to the car and as we set off, I said to Colin Smith, my co-driver, reset the Terratrip. It was 2.2kms before we came across Paddy’s car, so I had ran 4.4kms of the Motu!
We did manage to finish that event and maintained our 100% finish rate though. The following year, going for 10 from 10, the engine let go before we even made Motu.”
Emma Gilmour – NZ’s fastest female rally driver
“I have a few memorable moments from the Motu! The first one is the fact it was my very first competitive rally stage. A having a go at zero car in Otago in 2002 we decided to enter Rally Rotorua as my first rally. I kept catching the Japanese driver in front, but I was hugely relieved to make the finish line of the Motu.
I think it was the following year when, nearing the end of the stage, the newly painted front wheels had a bad vibration. We stopped to check and as we did the front wheel carried on along the road and disappeared over a bank. My co-driver, Glenn Macneall, said he’d jump in the boot of the Evo 3 to relieve the weight off the front and told me to drive out of the stage slowly.
As I took off and was about to hook third gear there was a lot of banging on the roof – in my inexperience I didn’t know what slow was!! We ended up retiring at the end of the stage anyway as we couldn’t get the studs out of the hub.
The following year I broke the steering on my Evo 6 when my turned wheel clipped a hidden outcrop of rock not too far from the finish.”
“It’s probably just the challenge of the stage that makes it really special. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been there, but I can honestly say that I’ve never done it exactly how I’d hoped that I could do it, so you keep on trying!!
It’s just a whole heap of segments really, but we’ve had everything in there from blown turbos to driveshafts and propshafts and all sorts of things. On the Silver Fern (in 2012) we managed to coast to the end because we had some driveshaft bolts break just at the high point before the end.
One time I remember we were on recce and the auto packed a sad, so we had to wait about an hour for that to cool down to keep going. Sometimes when you are up there in the dark on your last run in recce, you sure do wonder who’s lurking in the bushes, because you are so far from anywhere.
What Colin (McRae) did in there really captured everyone I suppose, and when it was part of the international in 1977 we were just young kids watching that and it was just phenomenal watching.
In 1983, we did it in the 1600 Escort and it was 103km then. I can’t remember how it all linked together, but that was pretty exciting. If you just break it into pieces though it’s not so bad.
I think the over-riding memory really is just the disappointment in a way of not really completely achieving what I think I could have done. I suppose that there are so many memories that they almost fade into one. On the Silver Fern it was pretty exciting because we went really hard and that axle broke just before the finish.
I remember standing at the finish when we went to watch one year, I was with Willy Orr watching them coming out and that caused me to go and buy that Mitsubishi Lancer. I was so excited about about watching all these cars come out.”
“I think my abiding memory of any time I competed on it was that it seemed, no matter what car you were in, you never seemed to have the right gear ratios in it!
I remember Malcolm Stewart cursing almost all the way up it in the Group A Audi Quattro in the pouring rain in the 1988 Rally NZ, as each time he managed to grab a higher gear and gain a fraction of speed, it ran out of revs and he had to bang it back down for the next demented twist in the road, which seemed to go on forever.
Probably the funniest story though, came while checking the 1990 Silver Fern route pre rally with Brent Rawstron, when a large hare ran almost 4km down the road in front of us, able to stay ahead because the tightness of the twists and turns. He was far better suited to getting down it quickly than we were, even having time to stop and grab a breath occasionally, until we caught up!”
“Coming from South Australia, where the roads are generally flat and high speed, it’s hard to imagine a more fearsome and extreme stage than Motu. It was difficult even on recce!
Motu has every element that a true rally competitor craves. It’s an enormous challenge, a feat just to make it through unscathed. It was daunting and a huge test of mental toughness for both driver and co-driver. I doubt if anyone could ever say they’ve had a clean run through Motu.
In Group N cars, which thrived on fast, flowing roads, and required a smooth, raceline, driving style, Motu’s relentless, tight corners and changes of surface meant you just had to take one corner at a time and hope you got most of it right. If you fooled yourself for a moment you’d got into a good rhythm, something unseen would tip you the wrong way for the next corner.
The other big issue with Motu was that Whakarau, a fast open stage, followed it with little liaison time between. I always planned to try for a good time on Motu (even as I write this I realise what a ridiculous statement that is), but keep the car nice for a blistering run on Whakarau (even more ridiculous). I think I only managed that once!
I did try to keep momentum up in a Group N car, using as much of the road as possible, letting it slide out to the edges and so on. Since retiring from rallying I’ve taken a road car over Motu and stopped to look at things closely where we used to push the limits. I would advise anyone still competing, not to do that! What’s out of sight on Motu is more daunting than what you can see!”
“In 1977 Ari Vatanen and I headed into the Motu stage after passing all three works Fiats in the stage prior. Once we started it’s right, left, right, left and after a couple of kilometres Ari says: ‘Jim, forget about the notes, you will never keep up in here.’
A couple of corners later and the front of the Escort is hanging over a bank and I’m out pushing. Back on the road and we set off again and Ari shouts out: ‘You better get back on those notes Jim.’”
“As soon as it started, I wished it was over!! Bloody hard work. You go up and you get to the top, and then you go again, it flattens out for a little bit and then it starts again and you think ‘bloody hell, I’m not even half way yet!!’.
The amount of corners, I remember thinking once ‘Geez, I’m going to end up with gorilla arms after I’ve finished doing this’, it was just a stage that was bloody daunting, like how many corners are there?
I don’t know how many corners there are, but there is just corner after corner after corner, there must be three or four hundred corners. I kept saying ‘For [email protected]#k’s sake, when am I going to get to the finish?’
The problem is you just know, if you don’t get every one of them right, you are going to get shafted on the times. You know when you’ve got to the top ‘yeah I’ve done it right’ or a third of the way up you know you are going to get your butt caned.
You have to have the car set up for every corner, that’s the test of it is to actually get every corner perfect. If you get every corner perfect you’re half a chance, but that’s easier said than done! That’s why it’s such a big effort.”
“You either love it to bits and you think that you’re a Colin McRae, but most other people love it and hate it all in the same sentence, and I think that is a pretty fair summary of the place, you never know if you’ve liked it until you got to the end of it.
At the time it is always a nightmare. The last time I did it was in the Silver Fern in the Escort and I sort of looked forward to it, but after getting 6km in and clobbering a rock, I was hating every damn kilometre to the end, and I think that’s what that stage is about.
If you chance your arm in there, it’s got everything you could ever want in a stage, it’s just one of those iconic pieces of road I suppose. To sum up, I don’t know whether I like it or hate it, there is something challenging about it for certain. It’s a bucket-lister, a road you need to travel down in your rallying career. Some of the journeys have been fantastic and some have been terrible.
They’ve had everything on that stage. The first year I did it in 1983 we got stopped when Bettega was parked on top of a cow or something in a Lancia 037. I’ll always remember the stage for that and I suppose the biggest memory of that stage, not actually driving it, was watching Ari Vatanen come out of there in 1977 in the international, that’s probably what inspired me to go rallying and it just so happened it was on that stage.
Memories from driving it are certainly good and bad, I don’t know if the good outnumber the bad, but it’s always been challenging and that’s an understatement too. I’ve never done that well on that stage, not that it really matters. Well, I guess it always matters, but it’s not something that you feel you need to have done in your life (win the stage), just getting through it with four wheels on the car and no dented panels is a big enough achievement.”
Read Part 1 of our Motu feature: