Top quality field for Otago Rally

By David Thomson on Sat, 7 Apr 2018

With two current World Rally Championship stars heading the 115-strong field, next weekend's Drivesouth Rally Fest is shaping up as another truly memorable event.

Once again, this all-action April 13-15 motorsport festival comprises the opening round of New Zealand's national rally championship and the Otago International Classic Rally.

The reputation of the classic rally is underscored by the calibre of this year's special guest driver, Mads Ostberg. The 30-year-old Norwegian has recorded no fewer than 16 WRC podium finishes for Ford since 2011. Next weekend, Ostberg will start as top seed for the Otago International Classic Rally in a Ford Escort RS1800.

If Ostberg is to take his first Otago win, he will have to beat some very quick Kiwis _ Regan Ross, Derek Ayson, Deane Buist and John Silcock _ as well as fellow overseas visitors, including Stewart Reid (Australia) and Merion Evans (Wales).

Seeking to extend his record as the most successful driver in Otago Rally history, Hayden Paddon is the other WRC ace fronting for the rally. Having missed the 2017 event due to overseas commitments, he is delighted to be returning for 2018, and will start as firm favourite to take the outright win and national championship honours in his Hyundai i20 AP4+ kit car.

There's plenty of intrigue behind Paddon in the national championship field, with defending Otago champion David Holder and reigning national champion Andrew Hawkeswood not competing. In their absence, the other national championship competitors to watch include top Otago drivers Rhys Gardner (Mazda 2 AP4+) and Emma Gilmour (Suzuki Swift Maxi).

Others to keep an eye out for in the national field include former V8 super-car ace Greg Murphy (Holden Barina AP4+), 2017 championship runner-up Matt Summerfield (Mitsubishi Mirage), 2016 title holder Ben Hunt (Subaru Impreza), long-time contender Dylan Turner (Audi A1 AP4+) and Australian-based Irishman Richie Dalton (Ford Fiesta Proto).

As usual, the event organisers have made changes to the rally route from last year. After the official start in the Octagon on Friday night, Saturday's opening leg will comprise eight gravel stages to the west and south of Dunedin, along with the tarmac super-special (running to a new format) in the city's wharf area. Sunday's action consists of eight stages in East Otago and Strath Taieri ahead of a ceremonial finish at Dunedin Railway Station mid-afternoon.

This edition of Drivesouth commences our in-depth coverage. Look out for our rally guide (including a full spectator viewing guide with maps and a full entry list), which will be published in Wednesday's Otago Daily Times, as well as further coverage in Drivesouth and the sports section next weekend.

David Thomson