The allure of Otago Rally

The allure of Otago Rally

Legendary rally names such as Vatanen, Kankkunen, McRae and Mouton have helped to make the Otago Rally what it is today, but it is the lesser-known internationals that have really built the solid platform on which the event’s global profile is based.

British driver Russell Brookes was the first big-name driver to head to New Zealand for the rally, but since then there has been a long list of drivers flying in from overseas to sample one of the world’s great rallies.

In 2023 there will be 19 international drivers from six countries, 12 of whom are from Australia.

World Famous
As a photographer/journalist, this will be my 15th trip to the Otago Rally, and while the competition on the gravel stages to the north and south of the city is the carrot that keeps me coming back, it is certainly not the only reason.

I have met countless people and made many lifelong friends during those trips, ensuring that my trips to Dunedin are as much reunions as they are work. My wife and I have fallen in love with Dunedin and the greater Otago region, and when world travel is allowed, it is the first trip we lock into the calendar each year.

There are many, many Australians who are in the same boat, be they competitors or spectators keen to witness the wonder of the Otago Rally.
Dunedin is the perfect sized city for an event like this. It has a welcoming atmosphere, gorgeous buildings and a climate that is unlike just about anything we see in Australia. Again, that is part of the allure.

From far and wide
Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen is the big drawcard for this year’s rally and he’ll be at the wheel of the Rossendale Wines Ford Escort RS1800 that many of rallying’s greats have driven in the past.

Hirvonen will be out for victory in the Eneos Oils International Classic Rally of Otago and will have to overcome some of New Zealand’s best classic drivers to take the title.

However, for most other international teams, their entry into the rally is more for their enjoyment and the experience, rather than achieving any set results.

That is not to say they will not all be trying hard and pushing their cars to the limit though. Far from it. Rallying, by its very nature, is a battle of driver, codriver and car against a winding gravel road and whatever elements nature can throw at them. It means that the unexpected can happen, and not all 19 of those overseas teams will make it to the finish.

As has been said a thousand times though, ‘‘that’s rallying’’.

Internationals to watch
Next to Hirvonen, the highest profile driver from overseas will be Australian Richie Dalton — although he is actually an Irishman who has set up a successful transport business in Sydney.

Dalton has contested the Otago event previously, and this year has leased an outright-contending Skoda Fabia R5 to challenge in the New Zealand Rally Championship component of the rally.

He is no slouch behind the wheel, and in 2022 finished third outright in the Australian Rally Championship in a Toyota Yaris AP4, beaten only by the factory-backed cars of Harry and Lewis Bates.

There are 11 other international drivers in the NZ Championship section of the rally, comprising a mix of drivers who have also leased cars, and others who have shipped their own rally cars from Australia.

From New Caledonia, Eugene Creugnet will drive a Mitsubishi Mirage AP4, while Vanuatu’s Pierre-Henri Brunet will be in a Mazda 2 AP4. Japan’s Kimoto Kondo drives a little Suzuki Swift, and Vanuatu’s Julien Lenglet is in a Subaru Impreza.

A trio of Aussie V8 Commodores are bound to be crowd favourites. Braeden Kendrick, Craig Jarvie and Anthony Morrow have shipped their gravel-throwing rear-wheel drive monsters to Dunedin and are eager to get started.

In the Classic Rally, five more Aussies will face the starter, headed by Stewart Reid in a Group B replica Mazda RX7 that was previously campaigned by Kiwi Richard Kelsey. Reid will contest the full New Zealand national championship in the car this year, having previously entered the Otago Rally on several occasions in a Ford Escort RS1800.

Ed Mulligan (BMW 325i) and Peter Leicht (Ford Escort) are Otago Rally regulars, while Western Australian Gerry McGroarty (Toyota Corolla) and Melbourne’s Pete Schey will tackle the rally for the first time.

Schey’s entry comes just three months after he successfully completed the gruelling Dakar Rally in Nissan 4WD.

The Leviathan Hotel Allcomers Rally has an international dimension too, with the Philippines’ Luis King driving a locally prepared Subaru Impreza H6.

The Otago Rally is such a success that it could easily survive without the international teams, but it wouldn’t have the same pull, and overseas spectator numbers would drop considerably.

The Otago Sports Car Club has worked tirelessly over many years to build the event into what it is today, although that momentum took a bit hit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now though, with the world open for business again, the rally resumes as it should, with international teams and spectators, and a worldwide audience watching the action via the internet and social media.

The Otago Rally is back, and we couldn’t be happier. See you out on the stages!

- Peter Whitten (Phoitos: Peter Whitten)