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I’ve been lucky enough to have been to the Rally of New Zealand on over 15 occasions, and have seen some of the world’s great drivers since my first visit in 1983.

And if there’s something that’s synonymous with Rally NZ, it’s helicopters. More than any other World Rally Championship event, helicopters are a common sight in New Zealand, following the cars as they slide their way across the world’s best rally roads.

When the event went further south than it does now, and drivers battled it out on the famous Motu stage, it was commonplace for more than 20 choppers to be in the air and on the ground.

Yet I’d never had the opportunity to go up in a chopper and watch the world’s best drivers from “the best view in the house”. Until this year.

Thanks to Rally Tours New Zealand, I was fortunate to be offered a ride in a seven seat Eurocopter on the first day of the rally. This is a state-of-the-art machine with plenty of room and glass area to watch the action.

And the news got better still. My fellow passengers on the flight included Pernilla Solberg (Petter’s wife) and their 10-year old son, Oliver, and we’d be following Petter and his Ford Fiesta RS WRC for the entire length of SS5, Te Hutewai 2. It couldn’t get much better than that.

The view from the air is something quite astonishing. For 11 kilometres we watched Petter throw the Fiesta around the stage like it was on rails, finishing the stage with the fourth best time, just 3.3 seconds behind stage winner Sebastien Loeb.

Interestingly, because of greater helicopter restrictions in Europe, this was the first time that Pernilla had watched an entire stage from the air, and both she and Oliver were equally as impressed as I was.

While I then sat back and enjoyed the rest of the flight and New Zealand’s breathtaking scenery, young Oliver (who speaks four languages!) quickly pulled out his iPod and played ‘Angry Birds’ until the flight came to an end.

While Petter’s time on the stage was just 7 minutes 36.8 seconds, we had around 30 minutes in the air, which ended with us landing in a paddock on SS8 and waiting for the rest of the RallySport Magazine tour group to arrive by bus.

We chatted for a further 20 minutes about the state of the WRC, Petter’s future, Pernilla’s former rally driving career in Sweden, and even of her father, Per-Inge Walfridsson, who drove for Datsun in the 1976 Southern Cross Rally in Port Macquarie.

It was, without a doubt, the experience of a lifetime, and one that I’m never likely to have the opportunity to repeat.


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