A last chance to secure New Zealand’s Gold Star rally championship title is the primary focus for top teams contesting this weekend’s Tomoana Warehousing Rally Hawke’s Bay (20-21 August).
 
The Hawke’s Bay event is the fifth and final round in the 2011 Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship which has seen the lead switch between former champions and Subaru drivers Hayden Paddon, of Geraldine, and Richard Mason, from Masterton. Paddon isn’t competing in Hawke’s Bay as his CR Properties Placemakers Subaru STI is en route to Australia for September’s FIA World Rally Championship event. So this leaves Mason, who currently tops the championship points-table with 410 points, with an 88 point advantage over third-placed Emma Gilmour from Dunedin.
 
For 33-year-old Mason, having won the Hawke’s Bay rally last time it was run in 2009, the season’s goal is close to being realised this weekend. After being beaten by Paddon in three of this season’s five events, the 2005 and 2006 Gold Star champion, with co-driving wife Sara alongside, says sticking to their plan has helped reverse their fortunes, but they still need to finish in Hawke’s Bay to win this year’s title.
 
“The plan from the start of the season was we’d take a steady approach to the year and plan to finish every rally,” says Mason who drives the BNT-backed Subaru STI. “I still maintain our points system is very harsh; if you miss a round you’re in trouble, and we’re still in that boat. If we were to break down on the first day and couldn’t restart for the second then Emma would have a relatively easy job to win the championship, so we’ve got to bring it home and a lot of it will depend on what she does really. If she goes all out and breaks down herself, for arguments sake, then the curtain would be lifted, we’d drop the hammer at that point and go flat-out.
 
“During the season Hayden has carried a lot more speed while we’ve been off the pace ourselves. Although we could have lifted our game a bit more to give him more of a challenge, we knew ultimately he had a bit more pace.
 
One of the things we did think about during the season was if we got to Hawke’s Bay and it came down to an outright fight between us and Hayden then this was the one we were going flat-out for. Easy words to say when he now can’t be there, but in all honesty that’s the way we saw it.”
 
From Gilmour’s perspective, she says the chance of becoming the New Zealand rally champion on Hawke’s Bay roads largely rests with fate. Having finished runner-up in 2010 to now out-going champion Dean Sumner from Rotorua, the Vantage Aluminium Joinery Subaru STI driver still has to finish strongly to re-secure the position for 2011.
 
“For us it’s the same as every event – to have a good run and aim for the top step of the podium,” says the 31-year-old driving instructor. “As far as the championship goes it’s really out of our hands, it’s up to Richard Mason, as it was with Dean Sumner last year. He is in the box seat and we can only do what we can do, and whatever happens happens. So we’re just looking forward to a good result, and our goal is to win the rally. It’s pretty simple really. As with every championship round, the top tier drivers are going really fast. It’s about what happens on the day, largely influenced by things like making the right tyre calls.
 
“It should be fun though; there are some new roads and with the pace everyone drives, every event, every stage, you have to give absolute due caution to your pace notes.”
 
The 2010 Gold Star champion, Sumner is currently sixth on the overall points’ table, 175 points behind Mason.
 
Sumner says he’s intent on ending his reign on a winning note. “We’re out to have some fun and come away with a rally win to finish the season on a high. The approach is win it or bin it, which hasn’t worked so far this season,” says the 32-year-old account manager who has finished only two events this season – Otago and Wairarapa – after putting his ITM Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 9 off the road at the other two events, Rally New Zealand and Whangarei.
 
Ahead of Sumner in fourth overall is Timaru’s Chris West who is also poised for a chance to take the round win. The insurance adjustor has been beleaguered by reliability issues with the Andrew Simms Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 9, but the former New Zealand rally champion has shown winning pace through this season’s events. West will start the weekend behind Mason as second car on the road.
 
Also in with a shot at event honours is Feilding’s Geof Argyle, but the top tier driver won’t be concerned about championship points as he holds an insurmountable lead in the open class four-wheel-drive category. Argyle’s Hunting & Fishing Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 8 lines up behind the Group N production 4WD and two-wheel-drive as well as the historic championship category cars, so Argyle is pinning his hopes on dry and swept road conditions to help pave his way.
 
As the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship, in association with Neil Allport Motorsports, wraps up in Hawke’s Bay, the two-day event sees competitors in the 2WD, co-driver, historic, rookie and junior categories all striving for final championship positions.
 
Nelson’s Ben Hunt has a hold on two category titles, with the former Rally New Zealand Rising Stars Scholarship winner leading both the junior and 2WD classes. The 23-year-old mechanic says his second visit to the Hawke’s Bay is about finishing the rally in as short a time as possible.
 
“Even though we’ve won the other four rounds in our category, it’s still pretty close points-wise,” says Hunt. “So the main goal is to go out there, drive fast enough and safe enough to finish both days. I’ll still have to push reasonably hard, but I’ll probably take a lot more spares in the car just in case we do have a minor breakdown.
 
“I just like the fun I get out of the driving; the enjoyment, thrill and challenge. It seems to have worked for me at winning championship points, so it would be nice to get both titles this weekend.”
 
Hunt leads fellow Ford Fiesta ST driver Josh Marston (Christchurch) by 88 points in the 2WD standings and has a 31-point advantage over Whangarei’s Ben Jagger in the junior title chase.
 
Birkenhead’s Rob Wylie has an 89 point buffer in the historic challenge trophy category. Driving the Nissan 240RS he took to victory in 2008, Wylie has two round victories this season. Hamilton’s Gary Smith held the lead after round three in Wairarapa, but dropped his advantage at Whangarei with an electrical failure in his Handy Rentals Ford Escort RS1800. Hastings electrical engineer Ron Davey took the Wairarapa round win in the historic category, but also succumbed to mechanical issues in Whangarei to drop from overall contention in his orange Power Consultants Ford Escort.
 
In the manufacturers’ title, consistency of its nominated competitors, which have included Mason, Paddon and Gilmour, has put Subaru well into the lead, with Mitsubishi and Ford now unable to catch up.
 
The weekend rally starts from Napier on Friday evening, 19 August, where the NZRC cars will be on display at Napier’s sound shell from 5:45pm. Drivers participate in an autograph signing session across the road at the start ramp area in Herschell Street before the first car crosses the start ramp at 6:30pm to officially commence the event.
 
The on-road action begins early Saturday morning with the first car leaving Napier’s Municipal Theatre at 7:00am and travelling to the Gwavas Forest for the opening 10.58km test. Competitors then travel south through the morning’s three stages towar d a service stop Porangahau in central Hawke’s Bay. A further four stages including two runs of the Triple Bridges stage complete the afternoon’s itinerary before the overnight halt in Napier. Sunday’s action commences for the overnight leader at 7:05am with the day’s seven stages taking competitors north through traditional county roads in and around the Mohaka and Esk Forest areas. The final 22.07km run begins at 2:22pm before cars return to Napier’s Clive Square for the ceremonial finish from 4:15pm.

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