Nothing less than first place in the race for national championship points and the coveted first New Zealander trophy, will do for Emma Gilmour when Rally New Zealand powers into life this Friday.

This will be Gilmour’s seventh appearance as a driver on Rally NZ. She has finished second Kiwi on the event twice before, including the last time Rally NZ was run, back in 2008. She was also runner-up in last year’s Asia-Pacific Rally Championship (the top result by a woman in international rallying in 2009), and started her 2010 national rally championship campaign by finishing second on the season opener in Otago.

“Second, second, and second again; I’ve got to say it’s starting to get to me,” says Gilmour. “A number of people are telling me just to hang in there and the win will come. Let’s hope they are right, and that this year’s Rally New Zealand is when everything will click into place.”

The 29-year old starts the 7-9 May Auckland-based event in a confident frame of mind having proven the pace of her new Vantage Team Subaru Impreza WRX STi on last month’s Otago Rally. Gilmour won a number of stages, led the second leg of the event briefly, and eventually finished just fifteen seconds behind the winner on that event.

“There were a few incidents that meant the difference between victory and second place for us at Otago of which at least two – getting held up by cows on the road on one stage, and losing our brakes on another – were plain bad luck,” Gilmour said. “But our car was quick, and should be even quicker now that we have made some further improvements to the brakes.”

Gilmour’s focus between now and the rally start on Friday will be on working with co-driver Glenn Macneall to perfect her pace notes for the challenging three day event.

“Most of the stages have been used before, so we have a good base to work from with our old notes and past experience,” she says. “But there also some fresh challenges such as the new combination of roads being used for the Te Akau stages in the West Waikato, and the new super special stages at Hampton Downs and the Auckland Domain.”

But Gilmour says one of the biggest challenges of all on Rally New Zealand is the minimal time for servicing the car between stages.

“On most national events there is a reasonably generous time allowance to work on the car after every two or three stages,” she says. “The Rally NZ schedule is much tighter for servicing, with the only chance to complete major work on the car coming at the end of the day.”

“That means that, as well a driving quickly, you have to pay attention to looking after the car mechanically over the course of each day. It can be quite tough getting the balance right.”

While Gilmour’s past record on Rally New Zealand shows she is adept at finding that balance, she is not underestimating the challenges the three day event will provide.

“The speed of the leading drivers in the national championship is world class, and because each day of Rally NZ counts as a separate heat for national points there is no possibility of treating it as an endurance event as might have been the case in years gone by.”

Gilmour reckons that one side-benefit of the speed of the Kiwi championship is that it should ensure that the top local drivers are a match for the leading Production World Rally Championship (PWRC) competitors that are also running at Rally NZ.

The PWRC field includes 2009 New Zealand rally champion Hayden Paddon. Gilmour, along with fellow Kiwi Subaru driver and former national champion Richard Mason have also been awarded wildcard entries into the PWRC field that allows them to compete on even terms against the international visitors.

“While my ambitions for 2010 are local – taking the first Kiwi award on Rally NZ and securing as many national championship points as possible – nothing beats the excitement of international competition,” she says. “A top result on the national components of the rally should translate into a top PWRC finish as well.”

After a ceremonial start in Auckland’s Viaduct Basin on Thursday evening, Rally NZ runs over three consecutive days from Friday to Sunday. Day one takes competitors north for stages round Whangarei. Days two and three are run in the West Waikato, with the new Hampton Downs race track as the base for day two and Raglan as the base for day three.

Photo courtesy of Geoff Ridder: Emma Gilmour contesting last month’s Otago Rally in the new Vantage Aluminium Joinery Subaru she will drive on Rally NZ.

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