Twin test ignites season

Twin test ignites season

Former national rally champion Neil Alport, driving a Ford, will also  line up this weekend, Catherine Pattison reports.

After 2020’s lack of motorsport events, the country’s competitors will be treated to an absolute feast this weekend, with Auckland hosting the City of Auckland Rally on Saturday and the Battle of Jacks  Ridge Rallysprint on Sunday.

Two drivers aiming to compete in both events are  Cromwell’s Hayden Paddon, who will convert his Hyundai i20 AP4 from restricted rally spec to hill climb monster overnight to contest the rallysprint’s Open 4WD class, and Dunedin’s Emma Gilmour, who will keep her Suzuki Swift AP4 unaltered after Saturday’s rally and compete in the Rally 4WD class on Sunday.

Saturday’s eight-stage, 120km event will be the first time this year that New Zealand’s top-level rally drivers have squared off against each other after Covid-19 caused the cancellation of the 2020 national championship.

They will compete on stages that were originally meant to be used for September’s cancelled World Rally Championship round and will head to the north and east of the city, into the Kaipara Hills, Puhoi and Riverhead Forest before the finishing at Jacks Ridge in Whitford.

Former national champion Andrew Hawkeswood, who owns the property where Jacks Ridge (named after his son) is situated, has combined his many years of international rally driving with access to his mining company’s earthmoving machinery to create the 2.2km purpose-built gravel road. Featuring massive high-speed jumps and technical cambered corners, all within close proximity to spectators, it has been billed as a world-class power stage.

The star-studded line-up will establish the rally as one of the biggest domestic events in New Zealand.  Paddon tops the list and he will go head-to-head with hill climb specialist Sloan Cox, of Rotorua, in his Mitsubishi Evo 8.

Paddon will not only have an engine overhaul for his team to perform tonight, they will also be readying his electric rally car to make its debut on Sunday.

‘‘We will do two to three demo runs of the EV car. It’s still very raw and won’t be operating at full performance, but it’s a chance for people to see it in the flesh for the first time and for us to see how it handles the gravel stage,’’ he said.

Paddon has missed the rush that driving to the limit against quality competition provides.

‘‘It’s going to be so good to be behind the wheel again with two very exciting events. First and foremost, my goal is to enjoy the events and obviously we target to battle at the front — but there is a lot of strong competition over both days, so we will have to ensure we are well prepared,’’ he said.

Having been involved in the Jacks Ridge promotional video — along with motorsport identities Greg Murphy, 2019 national rally champion Ben Hunt, Gilmour, current Bathurst champion Shane van Gisbergen, speedway ace Michael Pickens and the Hawkeswoods — Paddon has an opinion on the rallysprint’s credibility.

‘‘It’s a new way of thinking for the sport and something I think we will see more often — just like a Twenty/20 cricket match: shorter format, spectator friendly and an exciting knock-out result format that means nothing is a given. The concept takes on a combination of iconic events such as Ashley Forest and Race to the Sky, which is exciting.’’

After qualifying runs in the morning, the 58 competitors will be whittled down elimination-style to a top-32 shootout in the afternoon. The field will be halved each time, until the final two contenders face off to decide who will be crowned the inaugural king of Jacks Ridge.

Another Otago driver keen to test himself against the country’s best is Mosgiel driver Chris Hey. The cancellation of this year’s Ashley Forest Rallysprint was one of the main reason’s Hey, who is fresh from competing in two rounds of the New Zealand Hill Climb Championship — where he leads the 2WD category and is sitting second overall —  has made the trip to Auckland.

Gilmour’s Suzuki AP4 car doesn’t have far to travel, as it is based in Auckland with her new chief mechanic Tony McConachy. After more than a decade of working with Australian co-drivers, Gilmour has enlisted Cambridge-based Malcolm Peden to call her pace notes.

He sat alongside her for the City of Auckland’s two-pass recce this week and will be navigating her through Saturday’s competitive stages. The pair work well together and have finished as runner-up in two rallysprints and third in a full rally this season.

‘‘We are having a good run this year. Being on the podium at the Rally Bay of Plenty last month has given me a taste for finishing in the top three,’’ Gilmour said.
At Jacks Ridge, Gilmour will be joined by high-achieving drivers Matt Summerfield (Mitsubishi), Dylan Turner (Audi), Raana Horan (Skoda), and a pair of AP4 Fords driven by Robbie Stokes and Phil Campbell.

Murphy is coming out of retirement for the event and will compete in a Holden Barina AP4, while van Gisbergen will drive a new Mitsubishi Mirage AP4 car that was built for Kiwi rally stalwart Brian Green and is owned by Team Ralliart.

Rallying was a sport van Gisbergen grew up with —  his father, Robert, was a  talented rally driver.

‘‘It was something I never really got the chance to do when I was young — I did a lot of gymkhana and sprints and stuff, but never really did a proper rally, so it is pretty exciting that our season finishes early so I can come to New Zealand and do some cool events,’’ van Gisbergen said.

One of the most poignant entries is Spencer Bourne, who makes his rally debut in a Subaru Impreza similar to that driven by his father — the late Possum Bourne. Bourne junior, who has  received some mentoring  from Paddon, will sport the number 62 that his dad used while competing in the Production World Rally Championship nearly 20 years ago.

Six stars will battle it out in the cross-car category and should not be discounted from overall honours either. Three-time national rally champion Joe McAndrew, drift star Darren Kelly and nine-time New Zealand Midget Car champion Pickens will all have a good shot at making the shootout’s top eight.

Ian Ffitch could also be a contender for a top-four spot after impressing with a fourth place overall at the Ben Nevis Hillclimb in Bannockburn earlier in the year.

The Battle of Jacks Ridge will be broadcast live on Sky Sport on Sunday.

Photos: Geoff Ridder