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Opening the start to the Vantage Aluminium Joinery New Zealand Rally Championship, defending champion Richard Mason reigned supreme in Dunedin's wintry conditions on today's opening leg of the Rally of Otago.

Following a bitterly cold southern front sweeping through the Otago region during Friday, Saturday's opening stages to the south of Dunedin saw warming patches of sunshine before the weather again closed in.  With road conditions hard and dusty the week prior, the sudden winter blast resulted in parts of the forest stages becoming variably soft, making tyre choice decisions difficult.

Twenty-four cars started the opening round of this year's New Zealand Rally Championship,  with 22 compleing the opening leg contested over eight stages, mainly to the south of the Dunedin city.

The only hiccup to the day was the cancellation of the fourth test in the Berwick forest region, the longest stage of the rally.

Richard Mason relished the day's conditions, and fiished the day with a 26.9sec lead after winning seven of today's eight stages.

"We were unsure how the car would go - it was unproven, so we're really happy", Mason commented. "We've now had a good result so hopefully we can do it again tomorrow."

Chasing Dunedin's Emma Gilmour for second place today, the Mitsubishi of Brett Martin stopped in the penultimate stage when his gearbox failed. However Gilmour's outright pace in her Subaru Impreza ensured she kept a comfortable buffer, assisted by former WRC co-driver Glenn Macneall.

Finishing the day in third place, and completing a Subaru trifecta, Scotland's Alister McRae said he was taking his time to adjust. Having done minimal testing, his biggest learning curve was coming to grips with the Jemba descriptive stage note system used by the New Zealand championship.

"Obviously it's the first time on the new note system for me, the first time for Steve (co-driver) and I and the first time on South Island roads - all of that together you've got to treat it with respect."

"Those last two stages went very well after I dropped some time on stage five with a harder compound tyre, but everything is working well with the car.  Mason's pace we'll struggle with, but we'll keep pushing as hard as we can. They're new stages again tomorrow but the notes are working reasonably well so we can be pushing a bit harder", McRae said. 

Fourth for the leg and leading Mitsubishi,  Dylan Turner (Lancer EVO 9) just held off the Subaru Impreza of  Sam Murray after the Dunedin Super Special was run just after 5pm.

Murray 's team-mate, and American high-flyer, Ken Block, was 9th for the day. He also commented that he too was getting used to the descriptive notes and car used in his New Zealand campaign.

Light in attrition terms, the first retirement for the season was the brand new Lancer EVO 9 of Dean Sumner when his turbo blew in the third test.

Debuting four Ford Fiesta's to the championship category list, it was Mark Tapper who headed the 2WD field and leading Kiwi-2 car of Dave Strong.

With only three of the four classes in the Vantage Aluminium Joinery New Zealand Rally Championship being contested this weekend, the Classic category champion of Bert Murray (Mazda RX7) is running in a separate event.

Currently 2nd overall in the international field event, he is then followed by Derek Ayson (Ford Escort).

Tomorrow's conclusion to the rally covers seven stages, again trekking south through the county roads alongside State Highway 1. The cars return for a final 2km sprint around the Forbury Park Trotting Track before a 2:15pm finish ceremony inside the Dunedin Octagon.

Results for the Classic Rally of Otago will be available shortly.

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