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RallySport Magazine's Peter Whitten contested the 2006 International Classic Rally of Otago in a Mk2 Escort he leased especially for the event. Read how he got on, and why leasing a rally car is not such a bad idea.
Like any Australian rally fan who has grown up with images of Group B cars at the Rally of New Zealand foremost in their mind, it has always been my dream to compete in a rally in the land of the long white cloud.

I never thought that would be possible, but through my association with the Otago Rally and the Otago Sports Car Club, this year my dream came true as I fronted as part of the field in the event, held from May 5-8.

Initial discussions took place before Christmas with the event’s Roger Oakley, the man charged with organising sponsorship and promotion for the popular rally. From the outset it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to afford the cost of freighting my own car to the event, so Roger started looking into the options of leasing a car in which to contest the rally.

Not long after, he came up with a deal to lease a Ford Escort Mk2 owned by former Otago Rally winning co-driver Bryce Biggs. A car with modest, yet reliable specifications, the Escort had a 2-litre Pinto motor developing around 160 horsepower, a close ratio four-speed gearbox, 3-link rear axle, LSD with a 4.4:1 centre, good brakes, and came with the ‘horny’ forest arches which Escorts became famous for having.

With a service crew and petrol provided by the Otago Sports Car Club as part of the overseas entrant assistance package, everything seemed to be taken care of. All I had to do was find a co-driver and show up ready for the start.

A former national championship-level co-driver, Roger was more than willing to call the pacenotes in what would be his 17th Otago Rally, although he was quick to point out that his finishing rate wasn’t all that good. Nevertheless, I arrived in Dunedin ready and raring to go on the Wednesday before the rally got underway.

Having picked the car up from the freight company (it had arrived that day from Christchurch), we drove the car to Roger’s workshop to have a quick look at what needed doing the following day.

The car had recently been repaired after another Australian (who leased the car) had rolled it on an event last year, and it was resplendent in its new dark blue paint scheme. All that had to be done before our test session on the Thursday afternoon was to move the driver’s seat into a position that suited me, and do a check to make sure everything was in place and securely located – items such as the jack, spare wheel, safety triangles and the like.

Most of our pre-event preparation involved fitting a mount for a video camera, but this took less than an hour and we were soon ready to head south of Dunedin to do some testing – all of which was included in the lease fee.

The test road was on fellow competitor Duncan McCrostie’s farm near Balclutha, and while it wasn’t ideally suited to learning how to drive a new car because of its nasty crests and big drops, it did give me a feel for how the car handled and stopped. One of the pleasing things was that the brakes were set up perfectly, and I didn’t need to play with the bias adjuster at any time during the rally.

Once testing was complete we returned to Dunedin and while Roger and I spent Friday doing reconnaissance, service crew chief, Paul Goatley, and his team prepped the car in readiness for the event, fitting new tyres, applying event signage and giving everything a thorough check.

With the rally underway I was determined not to doing anything silly and, most importantly, wanted to get the car to the finish and get the full value of the experience on offer. We started 24th of the 33 classic entries, so a target of a top 15 result seemed a realistic aim.

Things didn’t start well, however, when the intercom failed on the first stage, meaning I had to drive the stage ‘blind’. Despite being fitted with an expensive Peltor intercom, it went to prove that nothing is fool proof. We also had a similar problem on another stage on the first day, and the team’s auto electrician later found that only two of the five wires in the intercom were connected. It was one of those little things that can lead to frustration.

Mechanically the car ran perfectly on the first day, never missing a beat as I strived to get used to the endless South Island crests and the speed of the local hotshots (not easy with no intercom and hence, no pacenotes!). Our only other glitch was when the car overheated on the third stage, but after we removed the radiator cap and added more water after the stage, we discovered that the problem was nothing more than an air blockage in the system – easily fixed.

We finished the first day with the first of two 40km plus stages, and while we never expected to be able to get near the big horsepower cars on a stage that seemed to be forever uphill, we were more than happy with 13th quickest time and ended the day in 12th place.

Our hopes of a top 15 result were now well within reach, and I wondered whether a top 10 result was possible. Given the calibre of cars ahead of us, we wouldn’t get there on speed, but with a low attrition rate on Day One, it was almost expected that more cars would drop out on Day Two.

We concluded the day with service at a local workshop where our crew went over the car from head to toe, fitted new tyres, repaired the intercom and made sure we were ready for another day of rallying.

A little overnight rain did nothing to dampen our spirits as Sunday dawned fine and sunny. We had a further six stages to tackle, starting with probably the rally’s most famous, Waipori Gorge. The 13km stage runs up the valley beside and across the Waipori River, and is pretty much rally heaven. Nearly all the corners are second or third gear and the surface is smooth and hard packed.

Immediately the second day blues started for some crews and we passed two classic cars on the stage, one of which was ahead of us before the start. We were up to 11th.

The following stage was 20km long, but interestingly, finished with a run out of the forest which was around 5km long and the car was never out of third or fourth gear. Seeing the shift light on the Escort repeatedly come on meant we we traveling at around 170km/h, but we later heard that the more powerful cars, including Fiorio’s Porsche, were traveling at over 220km/h!

A slight fuel vaporisation problem surfaced on the next stage and slowed us for the first 10km of the stage, but back at service our ever efficient crew turned the fuel pressure up by about a pound and the problem was solved.

The final two real stages were perhaps the most enjoyable of the event from inside our car. The first was a public road stage over 15km. It was true NZ rallying and the car launched continually over crests and in full drifts around the sweeping turns, all on perfectly smooth gravel. This stage did, however, see the end of Ross Dunkerton when his mount caught fire.

The last forest stage, true to Otago tradition, was the longest of the event. At nearly 45km in ensured that the event was still ‘live’ going into the final stage, and as expected, it produced a sting in the tail. Jimmy McRae crashed his Escort out of the event, and another top 10 runner in a Mazda RX7 retired with gearbox failure.

We had minor problems of our own, with the alternator light flashing on and off from the 20km mark of the stage, but fortunately it didn’t slow us down and 29 minutes and 22 seconds later we arrived at the stage finish with grins a mile wide, knowing that we had claimed a placing in the top 10.

My highlight of the stage was coming over a crest and seeing nothing but the ocean and a big tanker ship sailing north towards Dunedin. It took a few moments to get my mind back on the job after that!

With all the tricky stages under our belt, all that was left was to negotiate the final 2km stage around the Forbury Park trotting track, in front of a big Sunday afternoon crowd. Unbeknown to us, we trailed John Kershaw’s pretty Vauxhall Chevette HSR by just 0.1 of a second going into the stage. The Chevette crew were all too aware of this, but weren’t letting on.

Fortunately we managed to beat them by six seconds on the stage, and took eighth place into the bargain.

There were celebrations all round at the finish, with the crew, the service crew and the car owner all jubilant, and all for their own reasons. Roger and I had completed our aim, the service crew were given a relatively easy weekend, and car owner Bryce had a straight car to prepare for the next event!

Since the event the car has spent some time on the dyno and according to the Kiwis, the car (as I drove it) had 117bhp at the back wheels. With some playing around with the Dellorto carbies that were fitted, it is now producing 135bhp at the rear wheels, with a similar increase in torque!

All in all it was the experience of lifetime, and I’m already hoping to return in 2007 for another crack at the best event on the New Zealand rally calendar. I’d advise any Australian rally fans to follow my lead, and follow your dreams!
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