Manawatu arch-rivals Geof Argyle and Bruce Herbert dominated the opening day of the Hella Battery Town Rally of Rotorua today.
The 1998 and 1999 national champion Argyle holds a one-second advantage over four-time Rotorua winner Herbert in the fourth round of the Parker Enzed National Championship, which also doubles as the second round of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship.
With first day bonus points, Argyle now leads the Asia Pacific championship by one point from first round winner Armin Kremer (Germany), while he has reduced his deficit to Herbert in the national series to just two points.
There is a 20-second buffer back to third placed Fumio Nutahara (Japan) and 47 seconds to world production car champion Karamjit Singh (Malaysia).
The battle for the New Zealand championship now appears to be a two-horse race after Auckland’s Todd Bawden, winner of both the Otago and Southland rounds of the series, went off the road on special stage 3 in the eastern Bay of Plenty.
It was not a good day for two national championship leaders, with Timaru’s Chris West, only having to finish in Rotorua to retain his Group N title, forced out with radiator damage in the signature second stage through the Motu, while two-wheel drive leader Deane Buist (Christchurch) suffered clutch problems while travelling to the opening stage out of Opotiki.
Nutahara (Mitsubishi Evo 7) surprised with fastest time in the opening 19.18km stage in Motu 1 to pip Herbert (Subaru) on the stage the Palmerston North driver has dominated in previous years.
Nutahara retained his narrow lead after Italy’s Domenico Caldarola (Mitsubishi Evo 7) was fastest through the 26.81km Motu 2 ahead of Masterton’s Richard Mason with Herbert five seconds back.
The Manawatu pair of Herbert and Argyle made their move in the commanding 32.71 stage in Whakarau. Argyle was quickest but only 1.5sec ahead of Singh with Herbert 5sec back. With Nutahara 23 seconds adrift, Herbert took the overall lead, 10 seconds ahead of Argyle with the international trio of Nutahara, Singh and Caldarola drifting back.
Argyle, who announced that this will be his final year in topline rallying, set a new stage record on the day’s last stage, the 24km trek in Rakauroa. He blitzed the previous record by 30 seconds to finish 12 seconds faster than Herbert to grab the overall lead by just 1.8 seconds.
Nutahara retained third 20 seconds back, with Singh fourth at 47 seconds, Caldarola at 1min 12sec and Auckland’s Andrew Hawkeswood sixth 1min 30secs from the leader.
Other notables out of action on the opening day included Auckland’s Reece Jones, Australian Chris Atkinson and the Dunedin pair of Mike Turfus and Emma Gilmour.