Kiwi rally drivers test themselves against world’s best

New Zealand’s best rally drivers have the rare chance to test themselves against some of the world’s best on equal footing in this weekend’s Hella International Rally of Rotorua.

The current leader of the FIA World Rally Championship’s production class, Toshi Arai (Japan) and current FIA Asia Pacific Championship leader Jussi Valimaki (Finland) will provide a world-class test for the leading Kiwis led by current national champion Chris West.

For the first time in the event’s seven-year history all competitors will be in the same Group N class cars for the international rally which incorporates the third round of the Asia Pacific Championship as well as the fourth round of the Parker Enzed New Zealand Championship. Until this year the New Zealand championship included the more powerful Group A cars, meaning the Kiwis dominated the event until world production car champion Karamjit Singh’s victory last year.

“It’s going to be a really interesting test to see just where we line-up against the best in the world in this class,’’ West said. “Toshi Arai has won two rounds of the world championship this year and Valimaki has won two rounds in the Asia Pacific. So we know we have the best right here.

“In the past it’s been about running in our own rally while the internationals did their thing. But we are all in together this year with similar machinery, so it’s going to be interesting.’’

West said he would dearly love to win the three-day international rally outright although not at the expense of valuable points in the national championship.

“That’s still our aim to defend out national championship. This is an absolutely key round for us so we need a mixture of aggression and care.’’

Arai comes to Rotorua fresh from victory in the latest round of the world championship in Turkey, when he jumped from third to the top of the podium in the final special stage. The Subaru driver has a strong kiwi connection with Otorohonga’s Tony Sircombe as his co-driver.

Second seed is Arai’s fellow Japanese driver Katsuhiko Taguchi, who forms part of a super-strong MRF Tyres team with the in-form Valimaki, who won the last round in New Caledonia last month. Taguchi, supported by Possum Bourne’s former co-driver Mark Stacey, will be keen to make amends after failing to finish in the opening rounds in Canberra and New Caledonia.

Leading Kiwi is current Asia Pacific second placed Geof Argyle from Palmerston North. Argyle, a two-time New Zealand Champion, won the Rally of Rotorua in 1998 and has four other podium finishes here.

West is ranked fifth on the road in his Subaru Impreza ahead of Auckland’s Mark Tapper in the Mitsubishi who will be focused on picking up maximum points after dropping out of the last round of the national championship in Wairarapa. Tapper was the first Kiwi home in April’s World Rally championship round in New Zealand.

The heat is likely to come from West’s fellow Subaru driver Richard Mason of Masterton who jumped to third place in the championship after winning on home turf in the Wairarapa Rally.

Other Kiwis expected to contend include 2004 top rookie Sam Murray (Palmerston North), talented Dunedin driver Emma Gilmour who is currently second in the championship standings, and the experienced Glenn Smith (Hawera) who is chasing a podium finish.

There are 29 cars in the international field including 12 overseas drivers from seven nations. The rally also includes over 50 competitors in the Waiariki Institute of Technology Clubman’s Rally, which includes the national championship two-wheel drive class.

The drivers complete reconnaissance this afternoon, with shakedown and ceremonial start tomorrow. There are three special stages east of Rotorua on Friday afternoon, three special stages in Eastern Bay of Plenty on Saturday, including the iconic 47km special stage through the infamous Motu, with four stages to conclude the rally on Sunday around the Redwood Forests in Rotorua.

Points after two rounds of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship:

Jussi Valimaki-Jarkko Kalliolepo (Finland, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) 31
Geoff Argyle-Jane Black (Palmerston North, NZL, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8) 20
Chee Hong Kan-Bernard Chin (Malaysia, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8) 10
Brian Green Fleur Pedersen (Palmerston North, NZL Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8) 8
Dermott Malley-Steve Smith (Hawkes Bay, NZL, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) 5
Fan Fan-Jun Wei Fang (China, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8) 5
Mitsuhro Kunisawa-Simone Bachmann (Japan, Subaru Impreza) 4
Julien Lenglet-Karin Galinie (France, Honda Integra) 4
Katsu Taguchi-Mark Stacey (Japan, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo8) 3
Toshi Arai-Tony Sircombe (Japan, Subaru Impreza) 0

Points after three rounds Parker Enzed NZ Rally Championship:

Chris West-Garry Cowan (Auckland, Subaru Impreza) 145
Emma Gilmour-Chris Randell (Dunedin, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6) 124
Richard Mason-Sara Randall (Masterton, Subaru Impreza) 123
Mark Tapper-Jeff Judd (Auckland, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 7) 106
Brett Martin-Raymond Bennett (Taihape, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) 93
Sam Murray Stuart-Jenkinson (Palmerston North, Subaru Impreza) 88
Glenn Smith-Colin Smith (Hawera, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) 86
Marty Roestenburg-Greg Horne (Auckland, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) 85
Dylan Turner-Sandeep Bansal (Auckland, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6) 72
Dean Sumner-Jeff Cress (Rotorua, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) 62