Finnish rally driver Ari Vatanen heads the extensive field of historic competitors for this weekend’s DriveSouth Rally of Otago, the opening round of the 2011 Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship.
 
For competitors registered in the NZRC historic category, it’s an honour to be competing against the 1981 world rally champion who’s driving a locally-owned Ford Escort RS1800.
 
Vatanen is top seed in the International Classic Rally of Otago, a rally-within-the rally which features the NZRC-registered historic competitors who start their five-round championship in Otago.
 
It’s the first time Vatanen has competed in New Zealand since the 1998 Rally New Zealand round of the World Rally Championship. Known for his flamboyant and on-the-limit driving style, his first-ever visit to New Zealand resulted in a runner-up position despite having rolled and crashed the Escort he was later to be intrinsically linked to.
 
Stories of Vatanen at full-speed through corners with full opposite steering lock have long been the folklore of New Zealand’s rallying history and his return is regarded as both a benchmark for New Zealand’s increasingly large group of historic/classic class competitors and a chance to relive the past.
 
Christchurch’s Jeff Judd and co-driver Grant Marra start just behind Vatanen for Friday night’s first three special stages, making the Kiwis the top local seeds among championship-registered pairings.
 
Judd is in awe of the opportunity. “It’s any rally enthusiasts dream to compete against someone like Ari Vatanen, who’s probably a hero to 99% of us. Although the Otago classic rally is a single event on its own and while we want do as well as we can, we’ve also got the championship to consider.”
 
Judd drives a Ford Escort RS1800 of the same specification as the one used by Ari Vatanen; it’s the car in which he won the classic class, long distance Silver Fern Rally in 2010.
 
The historic category of the New Zealand Rally Championship features five Ford Escorts, with drivers including Judd, Ron Davey from Havelock North, Shane Murland from Paraparaumu, Carl Rabbidge from Timaru and Gary Smith from Hamilton. Aucklander Lee Stringer pilots a Mitsubishi Lancer with another Auckland Rob Wylie in a Nissan 240RS. Feilding’s Euan Fuge is a long-time Mazda RX3 fan while Kaiapoi’s Marcus van Klink drives a Group B Mazda RX7. Ray Wilson, from Pokeno, completes the ten-strong NZRC historic field in an Audi Quattro coupe.
 
After Otago, the NZRC competition continues with Rally New Zealand based at Hampton Downs on 7 and 8 May, Rally Wairarapa on 28 to 29 May, the International Rally of Whangarei from 15 to 17 July and Rally Hawke’s Bay from 20 to 21 August.

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