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This year’s fifth running of the International Rally of Whangarei, which runs from 15 to 17 July, brings an extended line-up of talented offshore competitors to take on New Zealand’s best rally drivers.
 
The calibre and talent in among the international competitors will make it one of the toughest events rally fans have ever seen in Whangarei believes multiple New Zealand rally champion and businessman Neil Allport, of Auckland.
 
The International Rally of Whangarei is the fourth round of both the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) and Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC), and to date a Kiwi team has always beaten international competition to take the overall event honours.
 
Now widely-regarded as New Zealand’s best-ever rally driver, Hayden Paddon, from Geraldine, won the Whangarei event in 2007, 2009 and 2010 with his Blenheim-based co-driver John Kennard. The 2008 event win went to the Christchurch pairing of Chris West and Garry Cowan
 
However this year’s star-studded international entry list has Allport buzzing at what the result may be.
 
Scot Alister McRae (Proton Satria Neo), Australian Chris Atkinson (Proton Satria Neo), Indian Gaurav Gill (Mitsubishi Evo X), and Japan’s Katsu Taguchi (Mitsubishi Evo X) are targeted by Allport as potential winners.
 
“For me, Alister McRae (age 40) has huge experience having been a factory driver for Mitsubishi and Hyundai; same with Chris Atkinson (31) in his time contesting the WRC for Subaru. They are in what should be technically-superior cars with the Super 2000-spec Protons, but it’s their ability which is really making the difference at being at the front; their commitment and experience,” says Allport, whose business, Neil Allport Motorsport, is an associate sponsor of the New Zealand Rally Championship which he won in 1986, 1989 and 1992.
 
“Gaurav Gill (29) is a surprise to me. Whilst he’s been around now for three years, he’s definitely found pace and consistency and the fact he’s been here a few times now makes him a really strong contender for Whangarei.
 
“Katsu Taguchi (39), well, he’s been around for a long time now and is a very good driver when everything is going well for him. He won the APRC title in 2010 and he’s capable at beating any of the other guys on any given day.”
 
Atkinson currently leads the APRC drivers’ standings after winning the most recent event, Rally New Caledonia, while McRae and Gill are tied for second on 60 points each.
 
“So there will be a good battle of the likes we’ve not seen in a long, long time,” says Allport. “I also think mixing the international guys in with the younger NZRC drivers will be good for everyone, especially Hayden Paddon and Richard Mason. Richard has found some extra pace now in recent New Zealand events which is really good. Hayden is obviously doing very well internationally. Certainly there is no substitute for competitive miles and, having coming off a big event like Rally Argentina which requires huge concentration, so that will be in his favour. But now with Whangarei, the pace is just flat-out from the get-go so it will be interesting to see how he can adjust and find pace.
 
“Chris West, who has won the event before. He certainly has the pace and is coming back from some reliability issues. So there are a lot of good potential battles coming up.”
 
This year’s International Rally of Whangarei comprises 301.12km of competitive stages on gravel roads in the Kaipara and Whangarei districts. Changes to the rally route add to Allport’s reckoning that the Kiwi stronghold is under threat.
 
“The event is quite different from previous years,” notes Allport. “While you’ll recognise many stage names, a lot of them are turned-around and a bit more mixed up in terms of their actual route and roads used, so I think that will bring a fresh look to the event, and certainly, from a drivers’ point-of-view, make it interesting.
 
“We’ve seen in past years there is always something thrown up at the end, on the last day. While you will see a bit of a pattern after the first run through the stages I don’t think that’ll necessarily be how it will pan out in the end. With the calibre of drivers that we’ve got you’ll see a couple of them not showing their hand until they have to. I say that pure and simply because of the experience all of those international drivers now have.”
 
The full seeded entry list for this year’s event is released on 24 June.
 
The International Rally of Whangarei commences with pre-event testing and promotional activities on Friday 15 July, with the event based at Whangarei’s Quayside Town Basin. The rally action on Saturday and Sunday takes competitors as far south as Maungaturoto and back to Whangarei for the super special stage at Pohe Island before wrapping up with the ceremonial finish at the town basin on Sunday afternoon.
 
Regularly-updated news, the rally itinerary and spectator information are available from the event website www.rallywhangarei.co.nz

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