Drivers speed up preparations for NZRC

By Catherine Pattison on Sat, 29 Apr 2017 | Motorsport | Rally
| Image 1 of 1 |
Equipped with a new bumper and a repaired suspension arm, Balclutha driver Rhys Gardner’s Mazda 2 AP4 is all set for the International Rally of Whangarei this weekend. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON

A short turn-around between New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC) rounds has seen Balclutha-based Rhys Gardner's team put in some long hours in the workshop.

His newly purchased Mazda2 was on its way to this weekend's International Rally of Whangarei earlier this week after a big effort to strip the engine and gearbox.

On the way to his impressive third place in the Drivesouth International Rally Otago three weeks ago, Gardner damaged the suspension arm and smashed the bumper in a high speed dip in the road, both of which have been repaired for the two-day, 242km Whangarei event.

The second round of the NZRC also doubles as the opening round of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC), which brings a strong line-up of international competition. The International Rally of Whangarei field will include defending APRC champion and last year's rally winner Gaurav Gill, of India. New for 2017 is the two-car, Sweden-based Mitsubishi team that includes former World Rally Championship (WRC) driver Jari Ketomaa.

The 38-year-old Finnish ace has competed on New Zealand roads and comes off the back of recent competition experience.

He and co-driver Ville Mannisemaki will be joined by Sweden's Robert Blomberg and co- driver Lars Andersson in matching 4WD turbo- charged Mitsubishi Mirage R5 cars. Gill and co-driver Stephane Prevot - who co-drove Estonian Markko Martin to a back-to- back win in the Classic Otago Rally - and new team-mate Ole Vieby (Norway) with co-driver Stig Skjarmoen, will compete in equal R5 specification Škoda Fabia cars.

A strong Kiwi contingent is itching to spar for time supremacy across 16 special stages on Northland's gravel roads and a further 54 cars will follow in the trail of the international category cars, including the similar specification AP4+ cars.

Last year's national field was headlined by WRC rally winner Kiwi Hayden Paddon and for 2017, his Hyundai i20 will return but in the hands of understudy David Holder and co-driver Jason Farmer.

The defending New Zealand Rally Champion, Holder's two-event drive deal with Hyundai allowed him to take an early lead in the six-round NZRC. Whangarei marked the scene of his first NZRC round win 12 months ago and set Holder on course for the 2016 title.

Auckland's Andrew Hawkeswood is second, eight points behind and is targeting a win this weekend after a costly time penalty effectively snatched victory from the Mazda driver in Otago.

Fastest on five of the Dunedin-based event's 14 stages, Hawkeswood demonstrated he is a clear 2017 championship contender.

Third in the championship standings is the ever-consistent Te Aroha farmer Graham Featherstone and co-driver Dave Davenport. Driving an older Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 7, Featherstone is the dark horse of the championship field with his reliable pace and finishing record.

Only one point further back is Gardner. Driving the first generation ex-Hawkeswood Mazda 2, he surprised even himself by battling all rally in the top three, but will head to Whangarei for the first time eager to finish. Rounding out the top five in the championship standings is Rotorua Mitsubishi driver Sloan Cox.

Dunedin's Emma Gilmour is determined to recover some ground in Whangarei this weekend, after a mechanical issue and an-off- road excursion at Otago meant that she and co-driver Anthony McLoughlin scored no points at the opening round.

‘‘We will certainly be putting our best foot forward and will be aiming to get as many points as possible in the Vantage Windows and Doors Suzuki Swift Maxi.

‘‘Our stage win and top stage times at Otago show we have the pace to win events,'' Gilmour said.

The Whangarei event also sees a number of exciting championship debuts. Auckland's Dylan Turner will unveil his much-anticipated Audi S1 Quattro, built to the AP4 regulations; four-time Bathurst- winning driver Greg Murphy will make his 4WD championship debut in a Holden Barina AP4, while four-time NZ Classic Rally Champion Marcus Van Klink will unleash his radical Mazda RX8 in the open 2WD category.