In the second big international rally of the year, New Zealand’s top rally competitors take on leading drivers from seven other countries during the International Rally of Whangarei which starts on Friday 2 July.
For many of the Kiwi contingent, like Dean Sumner, Emma Gilmour and Chris West, the event is a key opportunity to boost their standings in the Vantage Aluminium Joinery New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC). Sumner, from Rotorua, currently leads the national series with a 19 point advantage over Gilmour, from Hamilton, with Christchurch’s West a further 13 points behind. All three could still win the national championship and a good result in Whangarei is vital.
International competitors like top seed Katsu Taguchi, from Japan, are focused on earning points in the 2010 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC). The Whangarei event is the third APRC round and again, a solid result in New Zealand helps the overall championship campaign. Taguchi, one of two MRF Tyres team drivers, currently leads the APRC series and says: “Top three is good. Winning is best.”
This weekend’s event has a very different focus for former New Zealand rally champion Hayden Paddon who aims to win the event outright for the third time. Paddon is partway through a busy year competing in World Rally Championship events as a Pirelli Star Driver and will use the Whangarei event to work on fine-tuning his performance and outright speed for the WRC rallies. The Geraldine driver says he’s not worrying about championship points “...or anything other than getting in the right frame of mind to drive at 110% from start to finish.”
The fact that one event can count for several different championships is one of rallying’s unique points. Willard Martin, International Rally of Whangarei chairman, explains: “The International Rally of Whangarei, running 2 to 4 July, sees drivers competing for outright honours, points within one of three championships and, within two of the championships, class honours. While it may seem a little confusing, this rally-within-a-rally aspect adds another dimension to the whole event for rally enthusiasts.”
Taguchi’s position as top seed sees the Mitsubishi driver having to tackle the heavily-gravelled roads first, clearing a line for following competitors. “It is absolutely a disadvantage, sweeping the road,” says Taguchi. “Many strong drivers are behind me, so I’m hoping for rainy conditions which minimises the advantage for following drivers.”
With the current forecast for rain, then showers during Saturday’s first eight rally stages, Taguchi may get his wish.
Another top contender in the Asia Pacific field is former WRC driver Chris Atkinson. The Australian is driving for the Proton R3 rally team this season, and although his and team-mate Alister McRae’s Proton Satria Neo Super 2000 rally cars have suffered mechanical issues in earlier events this season, he’s keen to show what the Protons can do in Whangarei.
“They are really nice stages [on the Whangarei event]... fast and flowing with lots of camber to help you carry speed,” says Atkinson. “The biggest challenge is making sure you place the car in the correct place on the road. If you are a little offline or in the wrong position for the camber you are most likely going to be off the road. We think the stages will really suit the Proton and hope we are able to fight for victory in the APRC. I think people will really enjoy seeing the Super 2000 cars; they sound great and will be exciting to watch.”
With his NZRC focus, Dean Sumner says he’s got to keep on accumulating points. “I feel I’ve got the car handling better than it was at Rally New Zealand and I generally like Whangarei, although it has bitten me in the past. I generally like faster roads such as Nelson and Whangarei. I guess the main thing for us is to finish both days, not go out for the win but a top-three finish would be a goal. It’s a bit of a different situation for me [leading a championship], although I don’t feel as if I’ve got any pressure on me, which is probably quite surprising given my position.”
Like Sumner, Emma Gilmour is gunning for her first-ever New Zealand championship title. “Our primary objective is to finish both days and do as well as possible. We’ve had a good start to the season, but with the new car there are still a few things we’re sorting out. We’re looking forward to a trouble-free run and showing good speed.”
A former outright winner in Whangarei, Chris West is looking forward to driving the “fantastic roads. For me personally it’s probably one of my better rallies.”
The former New Zealand champion says: “At this point in the championship we’re out to maintain or maximise as many points we can for the title.  We’re going to stay in contention – that’s our main goal.
“We’re running a little further back in the field, which I don’t think is going to be as big an advantage as it has been in the past. You won’t be sacrificing anything on Saturday to get a better road position for Sunday. This weekend I want to go out there and get the potential from the car while enjoying it. It’s all there; the car and everything is working well. It’s just been circumstances that have robbed us a wee bit.”
The Whangarei event is the last home event of the season for Paddon, whose next offshore event is Rally Finland at the end of July.
“We’ll be taking the opportunity in Whangarei to practice the changes to our pace notes,” says Paddon. “The great thing about being on an event we know well, we have the chance to make that kind of fine-tuning to our systems.
Even though local championships are not key focus points, Paddon is registered to earn points in both the NZRC and APRC, after being awarded one of the APRC wildcard entries. “Last year we won the Pacific Cup, which is part of the Asia Pacific series, but we didn’t get to earn APRC points. While earning APRC points isn’t our top priority, if we can do well in both the event and the APRC field, that would be awesome. The APRC is a prestigious FIA series and to win a round is a very significant achievement.”
After the event’s official ceremonial start in the Cameron Street Mall in downtown Whangarei from 4:30pm on Friday 2 July where competitors start in reverse order, the three top seeds – Taguchi, Atkinson and Paddon – start in that order when special stage one, ‘Mititai’ just north of Matakohe, commences at 9:18am on Saturday 3 May. From there, they and the rest of the 67-strong field complete another seven stages on Saturday and eight stages on Sunday before returning to the event’s base at Whangarei’s Quayside Town Basin and the official finish ceremony.
Rally fans can access many excellent viewing points to see the rally action. Full details and ticket prices are shown on the official rally map, which is available free from Rally Headquarters on the corner of Dent Street and Quayside Way, Quayside Town Basin, Whangarei. Tickets can be purchased on the day from spectator points or from Rally Headquarters. Details on spectator points, the map and stage times can be also downloaded from the event website, which is also updated with event news on a regular basis.
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