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The 2012 Stadium Cars / Nichibo Classic Rally of Otago is shaping up to be a cracker, with eight international drivers battling it out with New Zealand’s best classic competitors in the three-day event.

The Classic Rally of Otago is based in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand, with former British Rally Champion, Gwyndaf Evans, set to lead the field away on the first of 17 tough special stages.
Thirty-one cars will line up in the classic field, with Ford’s venerable Escort Mk 2 dominating the top of the list. Nine of the first 12 cars are Escorts, with New Zealander Hayden Paddon the real joker in the pack.

Hayden Paddon will make his Classic Rally debut.
Hayden Paddon will make his Classic Rally debut.
Paddon is the reigning Production World Rally Champion after a stellar season in 2011, and while he’s won the Rally of Otago on two occasions, it has been in a New Zealand Rally Championship section of the event, in 2009 and 2011.

This year, the Kiwi will drive a Ford Escort RS1800 for the first time, and while he isn’t overly familiar with classic rear-wheel drive cars, he will be one of the drivers to watch and could realistically win.

Evans will also be fast in a Bryce Biggs-prepared Escort RS1800, but his lack of knowledge of the Otago roads, despite the event being pacenoted, could work against him.

The winner of the event for the past three years, Derek Ayson, will therefore start as favourite. Ayson’s Escort sports a Nissan engine, but that hasn’t stopped him from proving the man to catch in recent years.

Along with Paddon and Evans, his biggest threat is likely to come from another pair of Escorts, driven by Australians Geoff Portman and Stewart Reid.

Portman is a two-time Australian Rally Champion, is a former Otago Rally competitor (in a Datsun Stanza), and drove a Holden Commodore to an impressive third place in the 2010 Silver Fern Rally. He comes to Otago determined to take victory, and could be a real dark horse.

The Mazda RX7 of Marcus van Klink is the first non-Escort in the field, starting from position six, while local favourite, Duncan McCrostie, will again push for a top five finish in his turbocharged Nissan Bluebird.

Another to watch will be former New Zealand Rally Championship front-runner, Mark Tapper, who will drive yet another Escort, starting from position 10.

Keith Callinan returns in his V8 Holden Monaro.
Keith Callinan returns in his V8 Holden Monaro.
As usual, the International Classic Rally of Otago includes plenty of vehicles with a long rallying history, or that are a bit different.

Deborah Kibble has again entered the ex-Ross Dunkerton Mitsubishi Lancer EX, while Dunedin car dealer, Mark Laughton, is always a crowd favourite in his unique Rover V8-engined Hillman Avenger.

Laughton will be closely followed by popular Australian driver, Keith Callinan, who once again returns to the Rally of Otago from far north Queensland.

Callinan, with his wife, Mary Anne, in the co-driver’s seat, has driven a BDA-engined Ford Escort in recent years. However, in 2012 he has brought his much loved, and crowd pleasing, Holden Monaro across the Tasman.

Another Aussie, Dave Thompson, will make his first start in the event, at the wheel of his 1971 Ford Falcon XY GT 351.

The 2012 Rally of Otago gets underway at Dunedin’s Octagon on Friday evening, May 25, with three stages to the south and east of Dunedin. While the stages are meant as a warm up for the following two days of competition, the entail over 57km, meaning that they could have a big impact on the final results.

Saturday’s stages are north east of Dunedin, with eight tests, the longest of which is the 27.21km Golden Bar stage, which is run twice. The day concludes with the popular tarmac stage around the streets of Dunedin.

Far from being an easy run to the finish, Sunday provides a further six stages, three of which are over 25km in length. The longest stage of the rally is the penultimate 44.15km stage through the Berwick Forest, before the traditional run down the Waipori Gorge concludes the 2012 rally.

The rally finishes on Sunday afternoon at the historic Dunedin railway station.
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