Eric Thompson is a motoring writer

Pitstop: Otago rally heralds start of winter season

By Ross MacKay

Last weekend's V8 Supercars at Pukekohe marked the end of the summer motor racing season. Next weekend's Rally of Otago signals the beginning of the winter one.

The rally is the first of six which will make up this year's New Zealand Rally Championship with a 29-strong field set to be led by defending champions Richard Mason and Sara Randall from Masterton.

Fellow Subaru campaigners and 2004 New Zealand Rally champions Chris West and Gary Cowan won in Otago last year but were beaten to the 2005 honours by Mason and Randall. Both combinations have upgraded to newer cars this year, West and Cowan to a new Subaru Impreza WRX STI, Mason and Randall to the ex-Cameron Bates Impreza WRX.

Also debuting a new car in Dunedin is Emma Gilmour, the country's fastest female rally driver. Gilmour, of Dunedin, will share the ex-Dean Herridge Subaru Australia Impreza WRX with new co-driver Chris Cobham.

Subaru New Zealand Rally team driver West gained some extra tarmac practice for the Otago Rally by driving an Impreza WRX STI similar to his new car in the Production class races at Pukekohe last weekend, claiming a ninth place finish in one and a second in the other.

This year's Rally of Otago will pack 236.45km of action into 13 special stages, including a tarmac stage in the city on Saturday afternoon and a Super Stage at St Clair's Forbury Park on Sunday.

Vander drift runs hot after German round

Young Hamilton-born driver Chris Vander Drift heads into the first round of the two-litre World Series by Renault championship at Zolder, in Belgium, this weekend as one of the favourites after a pole and race win at the first round of the Northern European championship in Germany last weekend. Vander Drift, 19, won a scholarship in 2003 to compete in the Formula BMW single-seater class in Europe and, bar a quick trip home in January this year, has remained in Europe.

He has been trading fastest times in free practice at Zolder with Spanish sensation Dani Clos.

Cunningham scores top indy lap time

Defending champion Wade Cunningham was back to his best at the official Indy Pro Series test day at the Indianapolis Speedway yesterday, topping the time sheets with a best lap of 47.7263s at 301.72 km/h (188.575mph).

Yesterday's official test is the only one the IPS drivers get until May 25, when they line up to practice and qualify for their Friday race at the annual Indianapolis 500 meeting.

Fellow Kiwi, Christchurch driver Matthew Hamilton, also participated at the test, setting the 16th-fastest lap time of 49.1058s at 293 km/h.

Gaunt returns for another crack

Also back in the United States this weekend is Daniel Gaunt. The 22-year-old Aucklander dominated this season's Toyota racing series in New Zealand but found the first round of the 2006 Champ Car Atlantic Series at Long Beach, California this month a harder nut to crack, eventually finishing one lap down in 20th position. German driver Andreas Wirth won from highly rated Brazilian Raphael Matos. There are two rounds of the new-look 2006 series the first at a new street course in Houston, Texas, on May 13 and the second at Monterrey in Mexico on May 21.

Stolen bike no bar to taking 125cc title

South African-born 16-year-old Hayden Clark (Honda) dominated the premier 15-16 years 125cc class at the New Zealand junior motocross championship at Rotorua last weekend despite having his No 1 bike stolen. Fortunately the thieves left behind his practice bike, and it was on this that Clark, of Ngaruawahia, sealed the title, ending up with four wins from his nine races and no finish lower than fourth. Taupo's Brad Groombridge (Kawasaki) was the favourite but crashed hard on the last lap of the penultimate race and had trouble getting his bike started again. Gisborne's Matt Hunt won the 12-14 years 125 title and Mangakino's Cameron Dillon the 13-16 years 85cc one.

Kiwi kid shows his class in supermoto

Tokoroa's Darryl Atkins, aka the Kiwi Kid, carved an international reputation for himself in both the junior and senior motocross ranks before a serious car accident in Europe left him with a debilitating arm injury. But Atkins continued riding and racing and was one of the first off-roaders to move to the new cross-over discipline of supermoto. Last year, semi-works KTM rider Atkins, who now lives and works in the United States, was one of the front-runners in the US championship, finishing a close second to former American MX great Micky Dymond after the latter got the better of a last race, last lap, may-the-best-man-win duel. This year the pair are back with more fireworks expected at the first round of the championship at the Road American circuit in Wisconsin this weekend.

* Regular Pitstop writer Bob Pearce is on leave

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