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With our preparations for the Otago Classic Rally complete, Peter Whitten and Roger Oakley hit the stages in the their rented Ford Escort RS1800.

After finishing eighth in the event in 2006 in the 2-litre Pinto-engined Escort, the pair were hoping for a similar result with the power of the BDA engine up front .......

READ PART ONE OF OUR OTAGO RALLY ADVENTURES

DAY ONE

There was a nervousness about things as we pulled up to the first special stage of the Otago Rally. For a start, on the opening stage last year, Whare Flat, our intercom had failed and I had to drive the stage blind, and with no experience in the car it was going to be a real learning curve once the lights went green.

Fortunately all went well. The power of the BDA engine was a joy to behold, the handling and traction was superb and the road conditions were a lot drier than we expected after the overnight rain. My only problem was selecting gears in the ZF gearbox, but after a few times when I never knew which gear I was in, I was sure I would get used to it as the day wore on.

After a forest and public road stage to start the day, we then completed two fast public road stages that were extremely cresty and really required the brave pills. We completed them all with no problems whatsoever, and headed for the first service at Lake Waihola in 13th place, but less than nine seconds from eighth place. All was going to plan and, as always, it was a relief to get to the first service unscathed.

Stage four was the stage that most crews reckoned would be the telling test of the day. At 45km in length this was the stage that was covered in snow the previous day and many crews struggled with what tyres to choose. However all that was irrelevant when some unfortunate problems with officials meant that the stage had to be cancelled and all crews had to tour through the entire stage.

Amazingly, there was not a snow flake to be seen on the stage, and while crews were relieved at that, everyone was extremely disappointed that the event’s longest test had been taken out of the event. It was then a lengthy wait in the rain at the start of the following stage, the famous Waipoiri Gorge test.

Run in the opposite direction to last year, Waipori Gorge is one of the best pieces of road you could ever drive in a rally, with endless corners allowing you to really test out the lock stops on a grunty rear-wheel drive rally car. We were again 10th fastest and headed back to service before the final two gravel stages of the day, held around 40km south west of Waihola.

By now the rain was falling heavily and the windscreen wipers were going flat out, but the Escort just kept on performing. I was still messing up some of the junctions while trying to select the right gear in the ZF box (usually at spectator points!), but we kept the car straight and out of trouble to finish the final two public road stages 12th and 9th fastest.

After a final service for the day, in which some old tarmac tyres were fitted to the car, we headed back to Dunedin for the spectator stage in the city itself. This favourite Otago stage involves doing four laps of an industrial city block, and usually means you follow the car in front for at least two of those laps. It provides a great spectacle for the large crowd – who hard turned up despite the miserable weather and a local rugby derby between Otago and Canterbury – and the drivers love it.

We finished the day by taking the seventh fastest time, and were classified in eighth place at the end of the first day, which we were more than happy with. The only retirement from the leading classic cars during the day had been Gary Adcock’s Triumph TR7 V8, which broke a stub axle on the long 45km stage that we had toured through.

While the service crew gave the car a once over and fitted new tyres, we headed off for dinner and a good night’s sleep, eager to hit the stages again on day two.

DAY TWO

Day two was shorter in time, with a finish around 2pm, but we had seven stages and 150km competitive to negotiate in the meantime. The stages were a mixture of public and forest roads, and with more rain falling it would be a real challenge for all crews. As expected the pace picked up considerably on day two, but surprisingly the lack of attrition continued to amaze everyone, with none of the front running cars falling by the wayside.

The day started with the running of Kuri Bush, a 15km stage which is perhaps the event’s blue ribbon test. It’s one of the crestiest stages you’ll ever see, and anyone who’s watched the in-car DVD footage of Pasi Hagstrom from the 2005 event will know just how good the stage is. We were pleased to start the day well, with the seventh fastest time.

Things went downhill on the next test, however. A forest stage that included a few kilometres of slippery, muddy, downhill muck, it was difficult to keep the car on the road and a couple of understeering moments really seemed to knock my confidence. Even when the stage dried out and got faster towards the end, I still couldn’t get into a rhythm, as the car seemed be all over the road. The resultant 19th fastest time saw us drop a place overall, and we were now ninth.

On arrival at service we quickly changed tyres, and it was later found that the tyres hadn’t been re-pressured after they were fitted to the car. As a result, they were 10psi over pressure, which helped to explain why the car wasn’t behaving as I had become accustomed to.

The 35km Doon Flats stage was next and we recovered somewhat to take the 11th quickest time, followed by 10th fastest on the following 12km Akatore West. By now we could see the finish line in the distance, and having still not put a mark on this magnificent BDA, we were hell-bent on getting the car to the finish – but still with a keen eye on a top 10 result.

The road section to the penultimate forest stage raised some concerns when the gearbox seemed to be making growling sounds as we climbed the hill towards the start control. Hoping that it was only our ears picking up noises that weren’t really there, we roared off into the stage, setting what we thought was another respectable time.

On the road section afterwards, however, it was really whining in third and fourth gear. With only one stage to go, we crossed our fingers that all would be okay. Half way through the final 25km stage – the stage we’d had tyre troubles on earlier in the day – the ‘box really started to howl and when we started to smell gear oil in the cabin, it was time to back off and preserve the car to make sure we reached the end of the stage.

We probably dropped around half a minute, but the more immediate concern was getting back to service to have it checked out, and hoping that we could complete the final 50km road section back to Dunedin, and the final 2km super special stage.

With the service crew on the job it transpired that the gearbox was still full of oil, and that the problem was, most likely, a worn bearing. With that in mind, we cautiously drove back into Dunedin and thankfully arrived none the worse for wear.

All that remained was the final 2km blast around the Forbury Park trotting track stage, and just to prove that the BDA and the ZF gearbox are reliable old girls, we set the fifth fastest stage time, completing the rally in ninth place.

After driving back into the centre of Dunedin and over the finish ramp in the Octagon (the centre of the city), our drive in the Ford Escort RS1800 was over. The car was quickly loaded back onto Bryce Biggs’ trailer and we last saw it heading up the road, bound for Christchurch.

Interestingly, in 2006 we had finished the rally 16 minutes behind the winner. In 2007, we were only nine minutes behind the leader. However, such was the speed the event was run at, and the lack of retirements, that we finished one place further back!

BACK TO THE FUTURE

So was my drive in a BDA Escort all that it was cracked up to be? Absolutely. The power and the sound of the car is something that will live with me for a long time, and I can’t wait to see some of the video footage recorded at the event. As luck would have it, we also had a TV camera fitted in the car for day one, and I’m looking forward to reliving much of the action.

At the end of the day it was still just like any other Escort to drive (although a lot noisier and a lot faster!), but it was an experience that I will treasure.

An interesting conversation took place before the event, when my nine year old son asked what, to him, was a completely reasonable question.

“What’s so good about getting to drive a BDA Escort, Dad?” he asked.

I considered it for a moment, and then explained that when I was his age, the Escort RS1800 had won the World Rally Championship.

“It would be like,” I explained, “you getting the chance to drive a Citroen Xsara World Rally Car in a rally in the year 2034.”

It made sense to him, but the more I thought about my answer, the more I questioned the logic behind it and the possibility that it could actually happen. Surely, in the year 2034, the Xsara WRC wouldn’t be still as highly regarded, what with the advancements that technology is sure to have made in the next 27 years.

But then again, I doubt that many people back in 1979 could have predicted the joy that rally drivers in 2007 still get from driving the Escort RS1800. Having said that though, the Xsara – or the Focus WRC for that matter – has never gained the cult following that the BDA Escort ever did.

The sound of that magnificent engine and the sideways style in which the cars are always driven, mean that they remain etched into the memories of all who see them in action. And with events like the Otago Classic Rally, perhaps the BDA is unearthing a new breed of fans.

Who knows, instead of the chance to drive a Xsara or Impreza WRC, perhaps my nine year old’s dream is now to one day drive an Escort RS1800 in a classic rally. I can only hope so, because I’ve lived my dream, and I wouldn’t swap it for all the World Rally Cars under the sun.

SPONSOR THANKS

A huge thank you to our sponsors, whom without their support, the event would not have been possible.

Rally Rental New Zealand - great cars, great team work, great people (Phone +64 21 771800)

Otago Rally – without a doubt, the best classic rally in the southern hemisphere

Silverstone Tyres – two years, and not a single puncture!

Great Lakes Classic Rally – Australia’s answer to the Otago Rally

Centreforce IT – for all your self storage solutions

Mark Laughton Motors – if you live in Dunedin, they’ll have a car for you!

And don’t forget, the official 2007 Otago Rally DVD will be available in late May. Keep watching the RallySport Mag website for full details, and how you can purchase your copy.

Photos: Dallas Dogger, Michael Bramble, Richard Cocker, Luke Whitten

CLICK HERE FOR OUR 2007 OTAGO RALLY PHOTO GALLERY


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