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Heading into the final special stage of the 2011 Otago Rally, Derek Ayson acknowledged that he was now cruising for second place, and that to finish runner-up to 1981 world rally champion Ari Vatanen would be quite an achievement.

Ayson, who won the classic section of the event in both 2010 and 2009, had worked his way up to second place after what, by his standards, was a slow start to the rally. First up, he struggled for confidence on the Friday night stages. Then his endeavours to make up lost ground on Saturday were hampered by brake problems.

Derek Ayson took his third Rally of Otago victory.
Things finally seemed to come right for the South Otago driver on Sunday, but with the gap between him and Vatanen standing at over a minute and only the final stage to go, victory seemed out of reach.

Vatanen had, up to that point, driven a beautifully controlled event in his Escort BDA, but then slid wide on a tightening right downhill bend and smashed a gate post with the tail of the car.

The shattered wheel rim and suspension damage forced him and co-driver Fabrizia Pons to pull over and retire. Ayson duly powered through to claim the win, over two minutes clear of Australian Porsche driver Jeff David.

"It's so sad Ari's not here on the podium with us," was David's verdict as he prepared for the traditional champagne spray at the conclusion of the event. Ayson offered a similar verdict, describing his own success as a bit of a hollow victory, despite his entering the history books as the first driver to win the Otago Classic Rally three times.

Their sentiment said much about the status of Vatanen, as a charismatic superstar who made a huge impression at Otago not only for his legendary driving skills, but also for his extraordinary willingness to take time during the event to connect with rally fans including fellow competitors, of all ages. By the end of the rally, it seemed that even his rivals wanted Vatanen to win.

Though he had warned all and sundry not to expect too much before the event, the Finnish ace was always in the hunt for victory. He was placed second after the Friday night stages, behind Australian Stewart Reid, and took the lead when Reid's car suffered a gearbox failure late on Saturday.

Ari Vatanen was impressive on the 2011 Rally of Otago.
Ari Vatanen was impressive on the 2011 Rally of Otago.
Ayson emerged as the quickest of the classic runners on Sunday, after Kaiapoi driver Marcus Van Klink's Mazda RX7 suffered a broken wheel on the third stage of the day. However Ayson never seemed to be making up ground fast enough to threaten for the lead, and when Vatanen won the penultimate stage, victory was his for the taking.

Then came that gate and a footnote to add to the many incidents and accidents that have marked Vatanen's spectacular professional rally driving career.

Another late drama saw Kaitangata driver Duncan McCrostie (Nissan Bluebird) complete the final stage placed third, but then require a tow to reach the rally finish. That handed the final podium place to a surprised and delighted Andy Ruddenklau, of Dunedin.

Aucklander Rob Wylie (Nissan), Gary Smith (Hamilton, Ford Escort) and Mark Laughton (Dunedin, Hillman Avenger) completed the top six in a classic field that suffered a heavy rate of attrition on yesterday's stages.

Early casualties included Escort BDA trio Jeff Judd, Shane Murland, and Robert van Gisbergen, all of who rolled into retirement on the opening stage yesterday. Judd had been placed third and van Gisbergen seventh at the end of Saturday's stages.

Story by David Thomson (Otago Daily Times)

Photos by 'Crowbar'

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