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As many of our readers will know, RallySport Magazine has been singing the praises of the Otago Classic Rally since our first trip to the Dunedin-based event in 2002.

The streamlined organization, the friendliness of the organisers and the camaraderie between competitors, officials and services crews has been something that we’ve cherished every time we’ve headed back to the South Island of New Zealand.

 

PART ONE

But don’t take our word for it. The event now has a long list of international stars who have competed in the event, and they all come away with the same superlatives for the rally.

Former World Champions Hannu Mikkola, Bjorn Waldegard and Juha Kankkunen have all competed, as have other international stars such as Russell Brookes, Alex Fiorio, Jimmy and Alister McRae, Ross Dunkerton, Ken Block and Geoff Portman. Without exception, they have all been super impressed by the Otago Rally.

After reporting on the event for four years, RallySport Magazine entered the event in 2006, driving a leased Escort RS2000 with Peter Whitten at the wheel. After a strong result, and the lure of more of New Zealand’s sensational gravel roads, I set about trying to piece together a deal to compete again in 2007.

Much to my delight, Bryce Biggs, from New Zealand’s newest rally car rental company (www.rallyrental.co.nz) offered me the use of his Escort RS1800 – a car which has twice won the event in the hands of Brian Stokes, a former New Zealand Champion. With the aim to further promote his rally rental business, particularly in the UK and Europe, Biggs saw that the media possibilities were good by having me drive his car in the event.

But despite a great offer, I still needed to find some sponsorship to run the event. With the assistance of the Otago Rally, Silverstone Tyres, the Great Lakes Classic Rally, Centreforce IT and Mark Laughton Motors, we managed to get the funds together and our entry into the rally was submitted.

Again I would be co-driven by Dunedin’s Roger Oakley, a man well-known to all international competitors who have competed at Otago. Roger is the man with the task of sponsorship and promotion of the rally, and on top of his obvious talents in that department, he is an expert pacenote reader.

It was fantastic to receive the support of the Great Lakes Classic Rally, thanks to the help of Mike Bell and Dallas Dogger. Running in conjunction with the ARC round on September 15-17, this event will be based at Forster on the NSW central coast and is planned as being sort of a reincarnation of the famed Dunlop 2GO Rally of the 1980s. With Great Lakes stickers to be placed on the Escort, the aim was to promote the rally to the Kiwis, with the hope of attracting some of them back across the Tasman for our classic rally in September.

With our entry submitted it was simply a case of waiting patiently for the weekend of the rally to arrive – not an easy task when you have the chance to drive an iconic car like the BDA.

On arrival in Christchurch, I was collected from the airport by Bryce Biggs who then took me to his country property for a seat fitting and an initial look at the Escort I was to drive in the rally. Although the car needed a bit of tidying up before the event got underway, mechanically it looked very sound and with new suspension and brakes, it looked more than capable of doing the job.

The RS1800 had last been used in the Silver Fern Rally in October 2006. Queenslander Greg Poole had leased the blue Escort that I had driven in last year’s Otago Rally, but crashed and wrote off the car on just the second stage of the seven-day marathon event. The Biggs team quickly dusted off the BDA and it completed the final six days of the event without missing a beat.

After some sticker application and a quick seat adjustment, I took the car for a brief drive down the tarmac near Bryce’s house. With plenty of power on tap, it was immediately obvious that it was going to be a fun weekend.

The car itself had been de-tuned a little, in as much as the engine was rev limited to 8000rpm, rather than the 10,000+rpm that they are normally revved to. But that was of little concern. An 1870cc engine, this BDA has been built for reliability rather than sheer outright speed, and with the car generally used as a rental rally car, this is a wise move.

A unique aspect of this car is that it is fitted with remote reservoir Proflex suspension all round. This means that the usual Escort leaf springs have been removed from the car, and have been replaced by coil-over struts. It’s the most modern addition to the car, and while the Otago Rally isn’t known to be overly rough, the team believed that the suspension would make the car more stable than any Escort I had driven in the past.

After my initial drive, I was given the keys to Bryce’s VW Golf GTi (which incidentally was loaded to the hilt with road books for the rally) and I started the drive south through the Canterbury plains to Dunedin, some four and a half hours away. As expected the Golf, with its sequential six-speed gearbox and steering wheel-mounted paddle shift, was a joy to drive – but that’s another story for another time.

Testing of the rally car was set down for Thursday afternoon, but some last minute problems with the road books (which Bryce was producing on behalf of the organisers) meant that the car didn’t arrive in Dunedin on time, and so we missed our chance for a pre-event drive. I then used that time to take my son, Luke, to the Cadbury chocolate factory, before heading to documentation later in the afternoon.

Friday was recce day, and with a set of the supplied pacenotes in hand, co-driver Roger picked me up from my hotel at 6am. At this stage it was still dark, it was raining heavily and the wind was blowing straight off the Antarctic. But at least we’d be warm and dry in our loaned Mitsubishi four-wheel drive recce car, which had been kindly supplied to us by fellow competitor, and local car dealer, Mark Laughton.

It was a drive of about 100km out to the furthermost stages of the rally, which were to be recced first. By the time we arrived it was light (the sun was still buried well behind the clouds), but it was bitterly cold as we gathered to be escorted out to the first stage of the day. After a quick chat with fellow Aussie Glenn Macneall to get the low-down on his departure from the Subaru World Rally Team, it was off to do the real business of the day.

The recce for New Zealand’s championship rounds is a simple affair, with competitors given one run over each of the stages. Organisers provide a lead car to set the constant 60km/h pace, a car in the middle to keep things moving, and a sweeper car to bring up the rear. It’s a system that works very well, but it was a long and tiring day of around eleven and a half hours.

We made very few changes to the notes supplied to us (which use the computer-generated Jemba system), apart from adding additional information such as “keep in”, “don’t go wide”, etc, and putting in a few extra cautions. All in all it worked very well.

The weather had got worse during the day, not better, and many of the forest stages were tackled with it snowing ferociously. In fact the longest stage of the rally, at 45km, was around 80% under snow and we were literally making tracks in the snow, which was up to 5cm deep in some places. It was chilly, to say the least, with the thermometer in the car showing minus one degree for a good part of the day.

After we arrived back in Dunedin it was then a mad rush to get to Forbury Park were Roger had official duties to undertake, and I had to get ready to take sponsor Dal las Dogger for a hot lap around the trotting track stage. All crews had the opportunity to participate, and while many took event and personal sponsors, others just used it as a good shakedown before the rally started the following morning.

My first drive of the BDA on gravel went particularly well. The mid-stage chicanes were positioned in different spots to the previous year, meaning that you could hold the car in a slide for a lot longer, and the power of the BDA meant that we were soon up to speed. Dallas enjoyed the stage and climbed out vowing to buy a BDA for himself one day – it was a comment I said to myself many times before the weekend was over!

From there it was back to the hotel for an early night, in preparation for the first day of real rally action. With the promise of more rain, we weren’t sure what the road conditions would be like, but like all in the event, we were eager to get out into the forests and see for ourselves.

In Part 2 of our Otago Classic Rally adventure, we hit the stages against a field of competitive Escorts, Porsches, Datsuns, Mazdas and Triumphs.

Photos: Dallas Dogger, Michael Bramble, Peter Whitten

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