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Stunningly excluded from the first two rounds of the New Zealand Rally Championship on the eve of the third, Chris West fought back in the only way left open to him, by powering to a commanding event win.

West, who has been forced to give second-best to Richard Mason for most of this season and last, was forced into counterpunch mode by a technical infringement following last month’s NZRC/APRC double-header Rotorua Rally. Explained simply, West’s team were handed down the penalty after breaking official engine seals to carry out repair work after Rotorua without gaining approval in advance.

His chance of challenging for the national title denied, the official Subaru New Zealand driver had no choice but to turn his attention to winning individual events outright.

Run to a new format that combined an opening special stage rally heat of seven special stages on the Saturday with a rallysprint-format second heat, the Whangarei Rally was based on the well-known Rally NZ special stage cluster around Paparoa, which will no longer be used for the world championship event now that the rally base is moving south to Hamilton.

The event became a West benefit from the opening 48km Cassidy/Bull stage, when Mason lost over a minute with a puncture, and West powered to a comfortable 24 second win over Sam Murray. With four more stage wins from the day’s remaining six stages, West ran out an easy winner.

Mason won the balance of the stages and was runner-up on four more as he charged back from sixth after SS1, but try as he might fell some eight seconds short of snatching second-place from Murray over the final stage, a re-run of the Cassidy/Bull test.

With boyfriend Glenn MacNeall talking a break from the WRC to give advice from the sidelines, Emma Gilmour opened her account for the weekend with a fourth-placing.

“I did find it hard to get things flowing the way I wanted on Saturday’s opening stage, which was a bit of pain in terms of the time we lost because it was a very long stage,” she said. “After that things came right. We had a great battle for fourth with Todd Bawden, and beat him in the end.”

Dean Summer rounded out the top six and was the first Mitsubishi home for the first heat, while victory in the Kiwi 2 class went to James Holder (Toyota Trueno) following the demise of early pace-setters Dave Strong (who suffered a broken fuel tank on his Honda) and Kayne Barrie (who was admitted to hospital for observation after crashing his Nissan heavily).

Come Sunday, drivers faced a 5.21km rallysprint, in which the field was progressively whittled down after four initial qualifying runs.

West, Mason, Murray, and Gilmour all made it into the final eight, along with Mitsubishi drivers Brett Martin, Dylan Turner and Hayden Paddon, and Subaru-mounted Glenn Smith.

Gilmour, Paddon, Murray and Smith were all eliminated in the first shoot-out round, with Gilmour the quickest of those to miss out from Paddon and Murray. While the power of their Evo 9s had doubtless helped Martin and Turner make it to the semi-finals, neither driver was a match for West or Mason, so they were next to fall by the wayside.

Having been fastest in every round so far, West was favoured to take the sprint win, and he duly obliged, beating Mason by over a second to confirm his first double-header win on a national round since the 2004 Otago Rally.

West said the victory only made up about one tenth for what had happened before the event started when he lost all the points he had gained at the first two rounds of the series.

"We can't do anything about that, but it was rewarding to win today, not just for ourselves, but for the whole team who've put in a lot of effort. The overall title is no longer a realistic option - we've just got to press on and make the most of the other events."

By claiming runner-up honours for the round, Mason further extended his championship lead over Murray. Gilmour, meantime improved to third in the series ahead of Martin and Bawden.

“It has been a good, solid weekend all-round,” said Gilmour. “I am really pleased to have performed well on both heats, as they make quite different demands on the car and driver.”

“The changes we made to the car worked well, and we also had a chance in the sprint to try a few further new things with the car’s set-up that may be useful for the future. Things went well there too, and while I missed a gear change on my final run, the time I lost probably wouldn’t have been enough to make a difference in the final result.”

Victory in the Kiwi 2 section of the sprint went to Glen Inkster (Honda Integra) from Aaron Cook (Honda Jazz).

The next New Zealand national rally is the Hawkes Bay Rally on July 29-30. It will be run to the more usual championship format of two conventional rally heats, each of which counts towards series points.

Heat One NZRC Whangarei Rally
Chris West/Garry Cowan (Auckland, Subaru) 1h52m11s, 1; Sam Murray/Rob Ryan (Palmerston North, Subaru) 1h53m20.5s, 2; Richard Mason/Sara Randall (Masterton, Subaru) 1h53m28.6s, 3; Emma Gilmour/Chris Cobham (Dunedin, Subaru) 1h54m13.4, 4; Todd Bawden/Damon McLachlan (Hamilton, Subaru) 1h54m39.5s, 5; Dean Sumner/Paul Fallon (Rotorua, Mitsubishi) 1h55m38.4s, 6.

Heat Two NZRC Whangarei Rally (Rallysprint)
West, 2m59.7s, 1; Mason 3m00.7s, 2; Brett Martin/Raymond Bennett (Taihape, Mitsubishi Evo 9) 3m04.5s, 3; Dylan Turner/Sandy Bansal (Auckland, Mitsubishi) 3m05.2s, 4; Gilmour 3m06s, 5; Hayden Paddon/Nicole France (Geraldine, Mitsubishi) 3m07.9s, 6.

NZRC Whangarei Rally Overall Results
West, 1; Mason, 2; Murray, 3; Gilmour, 4; Martin, 5, Bawden, 6.

NZRC Championship points after 3 rounds: Mason 178 pts, 1, Murray 145, 2; Gilmour 117, 3; Martin 110, 4; Bawden 106, 5; Turner 80, 6.

Photos: Geoff Ridder

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