A blistering drive by Hayden Paddon saw the undisputed master of New Zealand rallying score an unprecedented 10th Otago Rally win at the weekend.
Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were in a class of their own, running out winners by more than four minutes on the Otago debut of their Rally2-spec Hyundai I20N. While rightly picked as hot favourite for the event, Paddon was quick to point out that in rallying you can take nothing for granted.
"It’s never easy you know," he said. "The beauty of this sport is that your main competition is yourself, mentally and physically. I know if I’ve driven a good stage and if I can feel good about it."
By the standards of most, every stage this weekend surely counted as a good one for Paddon. He won every single one, smashing numerous records along the way, and saving his best for last by shaving half a second of his previous record for the Kuri Bush stage.
While the master roared to victory, his protege, fellow Cromwell-based driver Ari Pettigrew, proved the perfect understudy. Showing how much he has learnt since his breakthrough drive to fourth place at Rally Otago last year and relying on experienced Jason Farmer to call the pace notes, Pettigrew impressed with a largely unchallenged run to second place overall.
Pettigrew was especially quick on Saturday, securing a buffer over those competitors behind him that came in handy when an overheating issue meant he had to nurse his Holden Barina through yesterday’s stages.
The battle for third was a tighter affair initially, featuring Aucklanders Raana Horan (Skoda), Ben Hunt and Dunedin’s Emma Gilmour in her newly-acquired Citroen C3.
However, Hunt, a former national champion, broke clear in his bid for the final podium position on Saturday afternoon and picked up his pace again yesterday.
"I was probably a bit rusty on Saturday morning," Hunt admitted. "I felt it came together a lot better on Sunday."
Horan and Gilmour continued to scrap as the rally unfolded. Gilmour’s pace was temporarily blunted by a loose steering wheel late on Saturday, but she reeled Horan in again with a string of fine stage times yesterday morning, only to suffer a puncture on the penultimate stage through Taieri Beach.
"I would have loved to make the podium, but I am still happy to come home fifth in my first rally with the Citroen," she said. "This rally has been very much about getting the hang of a car that is very different to the Swift I have rallied for so many years."
Cantabrians Josh Marston (Holden Barina) and Robbie Stokes (Ford Fiesta) came home sixth and seventh, the former after a consistent run over both days, and the latter having battled niggling issues.
Eight place overall and first two-wheel-drive honours went to Cantabrian Marcus van Klink in his spectacular Mazda RX8.
High profile non-finishers in the main rally event included Jack Hawkeswood, who slid off, hit a rock, and ripped a wheel off his Toyota in yesterday’s slippery Berwick Forest stage while pressuring Gilmour for fifth place. Aucklander Todd Bawden hit trouble on the previous stage through Waipori Gorge, forcing the stage to be stopped when his Ford Fiesta blocked the road. Visiting Australian Richie Dalton was an even earlier casualty, hitting a post and wrecking his Skoda Fabia’s steering on Saturday’s second stage.
With so many top-flight competitors in the latest four-wheel-drive cars coming to grief, the battle for the Otago Classic Rally crown also became a battle for top-10 honours overall.
That battle was fought between visiting Finnish star Mikko Hirvonen and New Zealand’s classic ace Dean Buist.
Hirvonen drew first blood with a classic win on Saturday’s open stage, but when Buist won the next stage and grabbed a narrow classic lead, that seemed to spur the Finn into action; he beat Buist through every subsequent stage apart from the tarmac Anzac Ave super special stage on Saturday, winning the classic rally by 1min 18sec and also claiming ninth overall.
"Because I am not rallying all the time these days, I don’t have quite the confidence in my pace notes that I once had," the former world championship star admitted. "But I am having so much fun, on roads that might even be better that those at home that we Finn’s say are the best in the world."
Jeff Judd completed a Ford Escort hat-trick behind Hirvonen and Buist, ahead of fellow Cantabrian John Silcock (Mazda RX7), Australian Stewart Reid (Mazda RX7) and Balclutha’s Craig Barclay (Ford Escort).
Elsewhere in the event, Wellingtonian Jeff Ward (Subaru Impreza) won the allcomers category on his way to 12th overall, Southlander Paul Cross (Subaru Impreza) won the Classic 4WD Rally and Masterton’s Jackson Clendon (Ford Fiesta) won the national production class 2WD category.
In all, 69 of the rally’s 110 starters completed the event.
- David Thomson