Inquest into rally car driver's death begins

An ambulance at the scene of the crash. File photo / NZ Herald
An ambulance at the scene of the crash. File photo / NZ Herald

An inquest into the death of a rally car driver has begun in Christchurch this morning.

Kelvin Watson, 54, died while taking part in an amateur Hanmer Springs rally in May last year.

His Ford Escort failed to take a corner and crashed into a tree, killing him instantly.

Minutes before, another driver had crashed in the same spot but no one was seriously hurt.

Culverden police Constable Phillip Woods said that in his experience, the race finish where competitors were encouraged to speed for a "flying finish" was very close to the left-hand corner.

The inquest heard a police statement by Mr Watson's nephew and co-driver Steven Watson.

He said his uncle was an excellent driver who was always in control and drove meticulously to the conditions.

Constable Woods read a statement by David Pettigrew, the driver who crashed just before Mr Watson did.

He said he struggled coming into the same sharp corner and realised he wouldn't get around it safely.

He swung hard just before he hit the tree and crashed down a bank. He and his co-driver suffered minor injuries.

The Straight 'n' Paint Hanmer Rally course has been described as a blind rally, with hazards discussed with the drivers before the race.

David Pettigrew's co-driver Leighton Baker said in his police statement that he believed the cause of both crashes was probably excessive speed.

The inquest will also hear from Motorsport New Zealand representatives.

Constable Steven Spencer of the Serious Crash Unit says the corner Kelvin Watson crashed on wasn't visible until the drivers came over the hill and could easily have been forgotten until the drivers were right at it.

David Pettigrew's statement also recorded he was deceived by the trees and thought the corner was further away than it actually was in the course.

Constable Spencer told the Coroner both cars were probably travelling too fast to negotiate the corner safely - and by the Serious Crash Unit's measurements a driver would have just over a second after seeing the corner to act on it if they were travelling between 65 and 70 kilometres per hour.

Their investigation shows the cars would need to take the corner at less than 70 kilometres per hour to travel around it safely. David Pettigrew stated he thought he'd been travelling at about 140 kilometres an hour when he veered off the track.

It was discovered during the inquest Kelvin Watson's modified rally car didn't have a current warrant or registration and the modifications to the car weren't to the race standards.

Motorsport New Zealand Clerk for the course Wayne Barnard says he was told the warrant had been passed but wasn't on the car at the time.

He also admitted the modifications were signed off by Watson himself as he was the Head Scrutiniser of the cars for the Hanmer rally.

The chief safety marshal of an amateur Canterbury rally says the corner was no different to any other in the forest.

Michael Winter says while each corner had its own angles, they all required the same amount of care.

"You have to expect the unexpected; there was nothing out of the ordinary on this corner that would be considered a hazard."

Michael Winter concedes the placement of the rally's finish line was not ideal.

- APNZ

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