Rally Whangarei is set to become a showcase of some of the best under-27 rally drivers New Zealand and Australia have to offer, as they do battle in the first qualifying round of the Pirelli ‘Star Driver’ competition.
The ‘Star Driver’ competition, announced earlier this year, provides up-and-coming rally drivers the chance to win a package of drives at six World Championship rallies next year, in a Group N or Super 2000 car.
For the APRC, the ‘Star Driver’ will be determined by a points system that rewards consistent speed over the entire course of an event, and this year that will event is Rally Malaysia. For drivers in the Pacific Cup region, Rally Whangarei will be a qualifying round, with the quickest two crews winning assistance to contest Rally Malaysia.
Already a slew of young Kiwi’s have put their hands up for the ‘Star Driver’ competition, including Patrick Malley, Mark Tapper, Sloan Cox, Andre Meier, and 18-year-old Kirsty Nelson, who will again team with Michele Brunt to be the only all-female crew entered. “We’ll be looking to push hard for a good result.”
But Whangarei is also a round the New Zealand Rally Championship, and last years outright winner, 21-year-old Hayden Paddon, currently sits just 29 points behind two-time NZ champion Richard Mason in the Kiwi national series.
“I’ve just got one focus for Whangarei…to win the NZ championship and try for a repeat outright win. I’m going to drive 110% and if we get a good result in one then I’m sure we will also get one in the other.”
“We have built a brand new left-hand drive Evo 9 this season. It’s taken a bit of testing to get the confidence in it as I did with the old car. Whangarei is an event that I really enjoy. (It) suits our car, tyres and myself so hopefully that’s the secret recipe.”
While a few Aussie drivers have expressed interest in the ‘Star Driver’ competition, currently only one, Brendan Reeves, has committed to Whangarei.
Last year the 20-year-old Victorian contested a full Australian championship in a Les Walkden prepared Subaru, and would have finished 4th in the series but for DNF in the final round. With the help of Kayne Barrie Motorsport, he’ll start his first Rally Whangarei in a Fiesta ST. “The Fiesta I will be driving is a new car for me. I will be at a disadvantage this being a front wheel drive against four wheel drive Group N machines, but whatever I can take out of the experience will be fantastic step towards my future goals.”
But Whangarei is just the first hurdle. The lucky two crews to qualify for assistance to compete at the final will still face a major hurdle in Malaysia, an event usually held in sweltering heat and run through the tight and twisty tracks of palm oil plantations.
Australian privateer Eli Evans is one of the few under-27s with experience of Malaysian conditions, having competed there in 2006 in the same team as series champ Cody Crocker. Eli has confirmed he’s a definite starter for ‘Star Driver’ final, one of the series leading teams having offered him assistance at the rally. And he is confident he not only has the speed to win the contest, but also the experience to cope with the unrelenting conditions.
“Being to Malaysia previously is a big advantage. It’s tough. There’s a lot of things to prepare for. It’s not just your car; there’s a lot of physical things you need to be ready for. Last time I rallied there, it was 38C degrees in the shade. That’s not in the car, in your race suit, at full speed.”
“It’s pretty hard on the body, and you need to be pretty fit to compete there at your peek level. You can be super quick, but if you get yourself exhausted then you can’t compete at your peek. I think that’s why I have an advantage over some of the other guys. Until you compete there, and you see other drivers around you being taken off to hospital with severe dehydration…and there’s still another day to go. It’s pretty intense.”
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Hayden. I got in contact with him after Whangarei last year…he beat Cody last year. Obviously he’s a very good steerer. If you’re under 27 and serious about rallying, if you can get to Malaysia you’re crazy if you don’t go.”
Photos courtesy of joelstrickland.com.au and hayden-paddon.com.