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The Otago Rally, held in New Zealand’s South Island, attracted an entry of almost 100 cars, and was well supported by Australians, with 12 Aussie crews crossing the Tasman for the popular event.

Here we take a look at some of the interesting snippets from the event, and why the Otago Rally continues to go from strength to strength.

Scotland’s Alister McRae contested his first round of the New Zealand Rally Championship at the Otago Rally. McRae, who is about to move to Perth in WA (where his wife originates from), struggled on what is the most difficult round of the NZ Championship, but was more than happy with his new team. His Impreza suffered problems on day two, but he finished the event fifth in the NZRC after the first round, and is looking forward to the next round on the north island, on roads he’s more familiar with, thanks to his recent WRC experience.

American star, Ken Block, retired from day two of the Otago Rally after he went off the road at high speed. When asked about how the rally had gone, Block’s co-driver, Alex Gelsomino, said that it had been going well “until my driver decided to turn his ears off!”

Block was asked about his recent 52 metre jump in an Impreza WRX, and said that it hadn’t been that difficult. “I think we can jump further without too much trouble,” he said, hinting at another record attempt down the track.

An unseasonal winter blast hit the Otago region on the day before the event, with plenty of snow falling on the forest stages during the pre-event reconnaissance. Around 80% of the event’s longest stage (45km) was completely covered in snow, giving the appearance of a Scandinavian rally, rather than one in the southern hemisphere. Thankfully for competitors, the snow had completely disappeared by the following day when the rally passed. “It was just was well,” remarked Kiwi favourite Emma Gilmour, “as we didn’t have any snow tyres in the truck.”

Classic Rally winner Deane Buist finally took the victory that he’d worked so hard to achieve over the past few years. Without Pasi Hagstrom to beat in another BDA Escort, Buist admitted that he always had a little up his sleeve, and as a result, he was never really challenged by former WRC star, Alex Fiorio, in a Porsche 911. Buist’s speed is even more remarkable when you consider that he doesn’t do the pre-event reconnaissance – he simply shows up for the first stage on Saturday morning and drives the route off the pacenotes supplied! Local knowledge helps, but it’s natural ability that really does the trick.

Buist is not a cocky type of guy at all, but when the seeding list for the rally was released, he was seeded second, behind Alex Fiorio. The Christchurch driver contacted the event organisers and jovially suggested that they had the seeding for the first two drivers around the wrong way. “That may be the case,” Otago Rally organisers agreed, “but the international driver must start first. But if you beat him, we’ll give you five litres of your favourite drink, and vice versa if you don’t beat him.” The bet was made, and at the presentation dinner on the Sunday night, Buist was presented with a huge 5 litre bottle of Jim Beam, and the organisers were $300 out of pocket!

Two-time Australian Rally Champion, Geoff Portman, said that he drove harder in the Otago Rally than he ever did in the Australian Championship in the 1980s. “For sure the pace is a lot faster,” Portman said. “Back in the old days we always had a little in reserve, but in this rally if you back off you’ll be left behind.” Portman was happy with his car, despite a lack of brake balance that he thought had slowed him down.

Portman and co-driver Ross Runnalls were lucky to finish the rally at all after they ran out of fuel nearing the end of the first stage on day two. Fortunately they were able to roll to the end of the stage where the car was filled up again, but it was a close call. It turns out the team had forgotten to refuel the “Snooks Motorsport” Stanzas the night before, as team-mate Darryn Snooks ran out of fuel on the way out of Dunedin before the first stage event got under way!

Queensland Champion Glen Brinkman leased a Ford Escort RS1800 for the rally and started testing a right-hand drive car, before switching to a left-hand drive Escort for the rally proper. Brinkman had a number of gearbox problems that slowed his progress during the rally, but he achieved his goal of completing every stage and gaining experience of the event. He plans to return to the rally in 2007 with his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9, and contest the NZ Championship round.

Another Escort punter, Michael Boaden, was unhappy with the supplied pacenotes after the first few kilometres of the first stage, and decided to write his notes for the remainder of the rally. Boaden was later unsure whether he’d made the right decision, but a top 10 placing showed that the NSW Champion was still driving exceptionally fast.

Victorian Peter Riseborough competed at Otago after entering the Race To The Sky hillclimb the previous weekend in his Datsun Sunny. Riseborough loved both events, but unfortunately retired from the second day in Otago after his car ran out of brakes and he went off the road. The long-time competitor is now talking about buying a rally car in New Zealand and doing more rallies in the land of the long white cloud.

Kiwi drivers Derek Ayson and Andy Ruddenklau have made the most of the classic rally car rules in New Zealand. Unable to afford the horrendously expensive BDA engines for their Escorts, the pair have installed Nissan FJ20 motors in their cars. While they don’t quite sound like an Escort should, they certainly have plenty of power. Ayson finished fourth in the rally, with Ruddenklau 12th.

Former New Zealand Champion, Chris West, was left without a drive in 2007 after the official Subaru NZ Rally Team pulled out of the sport at the end of last season. West appeared in possibly the oldest car in the national championship event, a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6.5. While he didn’t challenge for an Otago victory, as he has done in previous years, it was refreshing to see West still at the pointy end of the field.

The one-make Fiesta series that is now a part of the NZ Championship is showing signs of being a big success. Former Ralliart NZ driver, Mark Tapper, was the pace setter in the field in the 200 horsepower, Group N machines, which weigh only 900kg. Tapper was easily the fastest two-wheel drive car in the NZRC event, and more Fiestas look likely to appear in future rounds of the championship.

Sydney driver David Hills crashed his Lancer spectacularly on the very first stage of the event, with the damage being so severe that he was unable to restart on day two. Hills hit a concrete ford too fast, breaking a front wheel and rolling his car. Later, a Subaru Impreza also went wide at the ford, clouted its sill on the same rock on the exit, spun backwards down the road and stopped only centimeters from the Hills Lancer. Fortunately for Impreza driver Matt Jansen, he was able to continue and finished the rally.

The official DVD of the 2007 Otago Classic Rally will be on sale in late May. Keep checking the RallySport Mag website for full details of how to purchase the DVD. 

Photos: Richard Cocker

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