Forget pre-conceived notions of crowded Japan; Rally Hokkaido is a rural and forestry affair, run on an island which while Japans second largest in terms of size is home to just 5% of the countries population. The rally is based in the town of Obihro, a small (by Japanese standards) rural service centre of 170,000.
The flight into the city airport provided encouraging early view of gravel roads winding through hilly forests to the south of town. A couple of minutes later a large permanent race track came into view, and then we were on the ground.
The 20 minute drive from the airport to town reminded me of the regular trip I make from my home in Dunedin to the airport on the Taieri; fields of potatoes on one side, dairy farms on the other! The key differences? An 80kph speed limit that is rigidly adhered to by the locals (expect to cough up NZ$2000 if you’re caught at 100kph); tall overhead marker poles, that guide drivers in winter, when the snow can lie up to two metres deep for weeks on end.
The rally itself comprised 20 stages, all of them run twice. Aside from the two super specials, the shortest was just under 10km, and the longest a little more than 24km in length.
Popping into the rally service park after lunch at a small local “mama-san” restaurant, the visiting drivers shared their impressions of the stages: Very tight and narrow, especially on the first and third days; Soft surfaces that would be prone to cutting up badly the second time through; steep banks on either side that left little chance of recovery from a major moment.
Another local trap are the small concrete drainage culverts that run across many of the stage, often in mid-corner. As the roads start to cut up, they become exposed, and can all to easily cause a puncture, smashed rim, or worse.
The unexpected rain that struck on the morning of the event only exacerbated these hazards. It also made for some fun moments getting to some of the more remote media points on the event, even in a Landcruiser 4WD.
The quality of the top Japanese drivers was impressive. We’ve seen the likes of Taguchi, Nutahara and Tajima drive well on Rally NZ before, but there is also a solid group of top national performers. They included Takuma Kamata, the only driver aside from Bourne, Taguchi or Singh to win a stage. Reigning national champion Norihiko Ayabe was also in good form before engine problems intervened on leg two.
This being Japans first International Rally, the organisers and officials were on a steep learning curve, but they were certainly out to learn as quickly as possible.
Both public and media access was tightly controlled, and in all cases restricted to designated spectator and media points. Rallying at this level is, in any case, so new to Japan that the number of fans was pretty low, except at the designated super specials.
Working as part of the official TV crew for the event, I enjoyed more privileges than most, but even then the marshals often became jumpy if you moved into the stage (on foot) after the TRIPLE zero had been through, and even more agitated if you walked out before the sweeper car!
The language barrier can be a wonderful asset in such situations. One thing was sure, whatever the issue, it was always worked through thoroughly, and with extreme politeness.
Other times, though, the officials couldn’t do enough to help: there aren’t too many rallies I’ve been to where the local police salute you as you drive into a mid-stage access point. Nor can I remember having to wake a sleeping block marshal before politely asking him to move his car so we could get by.
The scenery is beautiful, in a very Kiwi way. We didn’t see any examples of the most dangerous local, the famous Hokkaido Brown Bear, on our treks through the forests, but there were deer, birds and the like.
Back in town at the end of each day, there was the fun of discovering a new place to eat, although in the end we settled on one favourite that was both friendly and reasonably priced (thats $6 a beer we’re talking rather the $15 or more you’d pay in some places).
The official finish was a very polished affair, with international rally bigwigs such as Shekhar Mehta and Gabrielle Cadringer along to present the top prizes. They had been invited because Hokkaido is under observation as a possible candidate for inclusion in the world championship.
Story: David Thomson