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Today’s first seven stages in the 2009 Vantage New Zealand Rally Championship have been dominated by former champion pairing Richard and Sara Mason in their BNT Subaru Impreza – returning with a one minute 13 second advantage.

The first of two days in the Tomoana Warehousing Rally Hawke’s Bay, Mason won five of the gravel based stages with second placed and defending title champion Hayden Paddon (Mitsubishi EVO 9) a slender 13.6 seconds ahead of Subarus Emma Gilmour.

Run under picture-perfect blue skies, the varying gravel conditions kept the front-runners on an even field with Paddon losing time early in the day to brake issues.

“That’s a good start,” said an emphatic Mason at the end of the 18.19 kilometre Mohaka Coach stage.  “We were really getting in to it in the last stage when the engine started getting hot, so we had to turn the (turbo) anti-lag off.  But this is exactly what we wanted – to come away with a good early lead and first haul of championship points.”

In a day of surprising attrition, 13 of the original 30 championship starters failed to complete the 160 kilometre journey.

First out was Hasting’s based Stuart and Logan Taylor.  Expected to fare well at their home event, their Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 9 left the road early in to the opening stage.  Next was Chris West and co-driver Garry Cowan – with the gear cable linkage mounts breaking on the left-hand drive Lancer EVO 8.  Also with gearbox issues, Rotorua 17-year-old Sloan Cox and co-driver David Calder had an early finish to their day with their Lancer EVO 10 retiring after the fourth test.

Comfortably leading the two-wheel drive cars, former Hawke’s Bay resident Patrick Malley and co-driver Malcolm Read (Ford Fiesta) were in a class of their own, finishing nearly two minutes ahead of former Kiwi-2 champions Aaron Cook and Strattan Campbell in the Honda Jazz.

“We’ve been having so much fun – with everything going right for us.”  Having recently returned from last weekend’s opening round of the British Rally Championship, Malley said he was exhausted yesterday.  “But once you get going the adrenaline takes over and everything is fine.”

Consistency and performance rewarded former classic class champion Euan Fuge and co-driver Donna Elder – the Mazda RX3 the only car to finish the day in the category.  Following 48 seconds behind, the debuting Skoda Fabia vRS diesel of Matt Summerfield returned un-scathed.

Rally New Zealand Rising Stars Scholarship winner Ben Hunt and co-driver Jeff Cress were among the casualties of the day – retiring when an engine mount in their Ford Fiesta broke after the second stage.

With the fine weather expected to prevail for the Sunday, a further six stages will confirm the championship standings for the first of five rounds in the 2009 season.

Resuming from 7am Sunday morning, the journey pushes teams north and inland, refreshing during the day at the Whirinaki Pulp Mill service area.

Adding to the spectacle, the 11.28km Triple Bridges stage alongside the Ngaruroa River between Hastings and Napier provides the penultimate test before a 24km sprint through the ‘Dartmoor’ stage brings the crews to the ceremonial finish at Napier’s Pak ‘n Save Supermarket carpark on Station street from 4pm.

Photos: Euan Cameron

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