International rallying makes a rare venture into the Western Bay of Plenty next weekend when the first North Island edition of the epay Silver Fern marathon visits Tauranga.
The last time an international gravel event did anything more than pass through Tauranga was 1979 when the WRC Motogard Rally stopped at the end of the first leg of competition while crews in the 1996 WRC event had a service stop in Te Puke on their way to the Eastern BOP stages.
More recent Rotorua events, which were part of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, have skirted as close as Kaharoa and near Paengaroa and Pongakawa.
When the Silver Fern event arrives next Sunday, there will be three closed road special stages near Pyes Pa, as rallying turns the clock back to the late 70s and early 80s with a field stacked with classic BDA-engined Ford Escort RS models.
The three previous editions of the biennial Silver Fern Rally have been staged in the South Island and this year's event is a seven-day North Island marathon that starts in Auckland on Sunday, November 11.
Baypark Speedway's pit area will be used as the service area at 2pm on Sunday after crews have completed five special stages near Mercer, in the Maramarua Forest, Tahuna and Richmond Downs.
After 30 minutes to service the cars at Baypark, the crews head to the No 2 Rd and Mangatoi Rd stage, starting at 3.20pm, followed by Taumata Rd (starting at 3.55pm) and then a forestry stage on Galaxy Rd, starting at Ngawaro and finishing at State Highway 5 near Mamaku.
The provisional Silver Fern entry list published early this month included 33 crews in the Historic Trophy Rally and a further 11 in the Challenge event for more highly modified and later model cars. Only two-wheel-drive cars are permitted in the event.
The field includes seven Australian drivers and six from the UK along with single German, Belgian and Luxembourg representatives.
Of the top 24 cars in the seeding list 20 are BDA-engined Ford Escort RS1600 or RS1800 models.
The top-seeding has been awarded to 2010 Silver Fern winner Jeff Judd (Christchurch) who will start his Escort ahead of the Escorts of Deane Buist (Christchurch), two-time Australian rally champion Geoff Portman, Wellington's Shane Murland and Christian Kelders (Luxembourg), who has WRC co-driver Stephane Prevot alongside him for the rally.
Providing a threat to the fleet of Ford Escorts is the seventh-seeded Group B Mazda RX7 of California-based, Kiwi-born driver Rhys Millen who recently won the Pikes Peak Hillclimb in Colorado. South Auckland's Andrew Hawkeswood, also in an RX7 but in the Challenge category, will also be one of the fastest drivers in the rally.
Former New Zealand champion Neil Allport is driving a Mk I Escort and Canterbury's Brian Stokes - another former NZ champ - will drive his highly modified Escort Mk II in the Challenge category.
Further variety is provided by a Porsche 911, two Australian Alfa Romeos, a replica of the 1977 Rally New Zealand winning Fiat 131R, various Mazda rotaries and a V8 Holden Commodore.
After completing the three Pyes Pa district stages on Sunday afternoon, the rally makes its first overnight halt in Rotorua before heading for Gisborne on Monday morning via classic Eastern BOP stages such as Maniatutu Rd, Manawahe Rd and the Motu.
Monday's second stage at 9.35am starts on Maniatutu Rd, turns into Pugh Rd and finishes on Pongakawa Bush Rd.
The rally finishes in Hamilton on Saturday, November 17.