A bumper field of rally cars is set to carve up the roads in and around Whangarei this weekend for the first round of the Asia Pacific Rally Championships (APRC), which also incorporates the second round of the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC).
For the first time in the seven years the event has been held in Whangarei, most of the NZRC field is not eligible for international FIA points due to technical rule changes introduced by Rally New Zealand. The international teams will get away first, followed by the bulk of the field a few minutes later in their own competition.
While it's a crying shame seeing the 2011 production world rally champion Hayden Paddon still in New Zealand, it will be the last chance for rally fans to see the talented Kiwi in action for some time.
Paddon heads off to Europe to contest the WRC2 rounds in Finland and Germany in August.
After the opening round of the New Zealand series at Rally Otago in April, Paddon and co-driver John Kennard lead the championship from Richard Mason and Ben Hunt.
Paddon and Kennard are three-time winners of the event, and while not able to gain any points or win outright, Paddon is keen to measure his speed against that of the international drivers.
"We're out to post times equal to, or better, than the drivers arriving from overseas," Paddon said. "We're particularly keen to see how we stack up against [Esapekka] Lappi as he comes here with a pretty good reputation.
"He's in a Skoda Fabia, the same as we'll be in when we get back to Europe so it would be nice to set competitive times compared to his.
"We know what his car is like and while it's probably superior to ours, we know we've got a good package that probably suits the Whangarei roads better. So it will be close.
"Whangarei also gives us a good chance to fine tune our driving and get quality seat time so we will be pushing from start to finish. Plus there is the uncertainty as to how many rounds we can do this year in the NZRC so we will take it one rally at a time."
Three-time New Zealand champion Mason is back for another tilt on the Whangarei roads where he's not had the best of times in the past. Mason and co-driver wife Sara have led the event on a number of occasions but haven't been able to finish better than third.
"Personally I think my driving style isn't particularly suited to the roads," said Mason.
"So we have to adapt and I have to make an adjustment."
The NZRC welcomes back one of the fastest rally woman in the world, Emma Gilmour, in round two of the series, as the Dunedin-based driver opted not to rush her new Suzuki rally car into action at the opening race. Instead the team used it as a course car so it could gain some valuable data.
Gilmour is joined by new co-driver Claire Mole, with whom she finished second in the 2009 APRC championship.
"After a lot of late nights we finally got to drive the Suzuki Swift Sport on a rally stage, although only as a course car, and words can't really capture the feeling," Gilmour said.
"The more I drove it the bigger my grin got each time I squeezed the throttle. And then, throwing it into a corner and feeling it hook up - awesome.
"We've some extensive testing in the run-up to Whangarei and we can't wait for the rally to start."
Others to watch for in the NZRC will be Ben Hunt in a Group N specification Subaru STI, currently third on the point's table and one of the few eligible to run with the international drivers.
Of the APRC drivers a number have raced in New Zealand before and so know the roads but all eyes will be on the man from Finland with the big raps.
Lappi won his national championship in 2012 winning all seven races and won Rally Poland.
Hayden Paddon 44
Richard Mason 32
Ben Hunt 21
Matt Summerfield 17
Matt van Tuinen 11
Rhys Gardner 8
Chris West 6
Deane Buist 6