A bumper field of rally cars is set to carve up the roads in and around Whangarei this weekend for round four of the Asia Pacific Rally Championships (APRC), which also incorporates the fourth round of the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC).
The event offers the chance for 24 national teams to pit their wits against the best international drivers from the Asia Pacific region, including former World Rally Championship drivers Chris Atkinson, Alister McRae and APRC champion Katsuhiko Taguchi from Japan.
The international Rally of Whangarei also includes local competitors in the Group N production car categories and is a subsidiary event for NZRC Open, Kiwi 2, Historic Class and Clubmans competitors who make up the rest of the 76-strong field.
The Whangarei event has been won by Kiwis for the past four years - the Production World Rally Championship (PWRC) series leader Hayden Paddon has won three times and Chris West once.
Paddon is having the season of his life.
He's atop the PWRC points table and won the first two rounds of the NZRC but missed round three, away winning his second PWRC race in Argentina.
Paddon now sits 46 points back from domestic series leader Richard Mason and is looking to make inroads into Mason's lead.
"The plan is to go flat out this weekend and develop the car a bit more," said Paddon.
"After Argentina we're working on a few areas in preparation for Finland [next PWRC round July 28-30].
"Probably the main thing this weekend is to get back into the mode of driving 100 per cent. Argentina was a rally we were driving at about 80 to 90 per cent but Finland will be the complete opposite.
"We're not sure where we're going to be starting on the road yet but I've always enjoyed the wet conditions. A bit of rain won't do any harm."
Mason will be wearing two hats this weekend and will be playing more of a tactical game as he's driving a different car to what he's used to in a different team. Over the two days he'll be piloting a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (as opposed to his normal Subaru) for China's SouEast Motor Kuhmo Team in the APRC category as well as trying to maintain his lead in the domestic championship.
"We're still using a Group N car but it's a different brand and we haven't had a lot of time in it," said Mason. "We're a little bit apprehensive about how it's going to go but with the little testing we have done the car feels good.
"It's a good team with good people running it. We have the luxury of coming second here [Whangarei] and still end up leading the championship so our backs aren't completely against the wall. We feel we're going quick enough to be near the top of the leader board at the end of the day."
Lying third in the NZRC just 17 points behind Paddon, Emma Gilmour is also chasing points in both classes. Gilmour is registered for APRC points with Team MRF while pursuing her own NZRC points chase.
"The roads are pretty wet but in good order as they seem to weather it well.
"I'm quite lucky that I'm in the APRC field and will start in top half of the field," said Gilmour.
"It's exciting to be part of an international team and so far it's been all good and I'm really looking forward to it. At least I'm driving my own car and if we're doing well in the NZRC section we know we'll be up the font in the APRC rankings.
"The New Zealand championship is our focus but we want to a good job in both."
The rally action starts from Whangarei's Quayside Town Basin this morning, taking competitors as far south as Maungaturoto and back to Whangarei for the super special stage at Pohe Island.
The event wraps up with the ceremonial finish at Quayside Town Basin at 3.30 tomorrow afternoon.
After round three (of five)
1. Chris Atkinson, AUS... 70
2. Gaurav Gill, IND... 60
3. Alister McRae, GBR... 60
4. Rifat Sungkar, IND... 45
5. Mark Higgins, GBR... 39
6. Brian Green, NZL... 24
After round three (of five)
1. Richard Mason... 302
2. Hayden Paddon... 256
3. Emma Gilmour... 239
4. Dean Sumner... 228
5. Chris West... 191
6. Glenn Inkster... 185
Rally by numbers
* Contested over 301.9km broken in to 16 special stages.
* 76 teams of cars from nine different countries are entered.
* 22 teams are competing in the round of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC).
* 24 teams will contest the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC).
* Seven teams are scoring points in both the APRC and NZRC.
* 70 media from six countries (12 from China) will attend, representing 39 different outlets.
* Hayden Paddon won the rally in 2010, 2009 and 2007 and Chris West in 2008 and it's never been won outright by an international driver.
* The rally is split into two events to cater for different car eligibility. The first half is for cars complying to international specifications (Group N, S2000) with the second field including open-class championship, historic and clubmans competitors contesting the Top Half Rally Series.By Eric Thompson