Next month’s NAC Insurance International Rally of Whangarei sees the stars of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship vying for victory on the scenic roads of the Kaipara and Whangarei districts.
This is the third consecutive year that a round of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) has been based in Whangarei. This year, two top Kiwi drivers – Haydon Paddon and Emma Gilmour – are competing in the challenging APRC series that was dominated by the much-loved Possum Bourne for several years. And Bourne’s protégé, three-time APRC champion Australian Subaru driver Cody Crocker will again be the driver to beat in Whangarei.
Crocker finished as the top APRC competitor in Rally Queensland in May (second overall behind two-time Australian champion Simon Evans). Crocker now tops the APRC leader-board with 16 points ahead of star Japanese driver Katsuhiko Taguchi with 12 points. Gilmour, who drives for the same Singapore-based Motor Image Subaru team as Crocker, is in third place with seven points after the Queensland event.
“To have two cars on the podium, brand-new cars, this has been a fantastic event for us,” said Crocker of winning his home event in the new hatchback-shape Subaru Impreza WRX N14 rally car that he and Gilmour drive. “The team has worked incredibly hard to have the cars ready for this event. The cars have been almost flawless. The only mishap I had was during shakedown where I lost the rear bumper and, true to form, whenever we’ve done that we’ve won the event. So it’s been great!”
Second in the APRC standings was the first of two MRF Tyres Mitsubishis driven by Taguchi with his Australian co-driver Mark Stacey, who used to co-drive for Bourne.
Gilmour was forced to work hard for third place, with her car slowed by a niggling power problem on the opening leg of the two-day event. Despite this, she finished the first day placed fourth in the APRC field. Overnight work by the Motor Image team had the car running much better on Sunday.
“With so much new for me – the roads, my car, and my co-driver Rhiannon Smyth – I had simply set my sights on a respectable finish,” said Gilmour. “Fourth place would have been just that, but finishing third makes it a whole lot more special.”
Gilmour’s main threats came from current New Zealand rally champion Hayden Paddon and Frenchman Jean-Louis Leyraud, both of whom are entered in the Pacific Cup component of the APRC series.
Gilmour already had Leyraud’s measure before he crashed into retirement. She also had enough of a buffer over Paddon to hold him at bay before he too succumbed to the challenging conditions on the very last stage of the Queensland event.
An unexpected bonus for Gilmour came when third-placed Indian driver Gauray Gill, in the other MRF Tyres Mitsubishi, punctured on the final stage. Gill’s co-driver is Gilmour’s partner-in-life Glenn Macneall and their delay was enough to allow Gilmour through to snatch third.
“I don’t think Glenn will allow me to crow too much about picking up third on the final stage, but from my perspective it really was the icing on the cake after a rally that was every bit as tough as I had expected,” Gilmour said.
Paddon, who won the 2007 International Rally of Whangarei and came second in 2008, hasn’t had the best start to his APRC Pacific Cup campaign so the young Geraldine driver will undoubtedly be looking forward to the familiar and profitable roads in Whangarei in June.
In Queensland, Paddon’s Mitsubishi suffered damage during two significant incidents in a rocky river ford, leaving him tenth overall and sixth APRC driver.
“Despite the weekend being tough, we still learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the [Queensland] roads,” said Paddon. “These continued to become faster and cleaner, almost like tarmac in places, with big rubber marks from the tyres on most of the braking points, but with some rough places developing too. Under these conditions, which are so different from New Zealand, it was great to be able to set some competitive stage times.”
Paddon was also competing for points to qualify for the 2009 Pirelli Star Driver competition. Rally Queensland was the first of two Pacific qualifying rounds – with Rally Whangarei the other – where the top two qualifiers from each event are eligible to compete for the 500,000 Euro (NZ $1.07 million) prize to become one of five Pirelli Star Drivers competing in selected rounds of the 2010 World Rally Championship.
Paddon was up against three Australians for the Pirelli points and finished fourth of the four.
“The pressure will definitely be on in Whangarei to qualify for the Pirelli Star Driver scholarship,” said Paddon, who is attempting to follow in the footsteps of Kiwi Mark Tapper who won the inaugural Asia Pacific Pirelli-backed prize last year.
The APRC teams arrive in Whangarei early in the week of the event, which starts on 5 June. Six APRC competitors are New Zealand-based and right at home on the wintery roads. Several of the event’s promotional activities give the off-shore crew a true taste of Kiwi culture, including a mystery bus tour with the Whangarei District’s mayor, rides to school for local winners of the colouring competition and a waka challenge off Quayside Town Basin in the quiet waters of upper Whangarei Harbour.
The rally itself takes place on 6 and 7 June, with the APRC competitors followed through 281 kilometres of competitive rally stages by entrants in the New Zealand Rally Championship and a Clubman’s field. In total about 50 teams are expected to contest the NAC Insurance International Rally of Whangarei.
Further information on timings, spectator access, maps and the latest news can be found on the website www.rallywhangarei.co.nz